Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Black Dominates Seoul Fashion Week

Black is back.

Perhaps to match the gloomy economic outlook for the rest of the year, black dominated the catwalks at Seoul Fashion Week, which ended Thursday.

Despite the depressing lack of color, Korean designers still managed to introduce new styles and trends in their fall and winter collections.

Star power certainly helped attract crowds to the Seoul Trade Exhibition Center (SETEC), Daechi-dong, southern Seoul. "Boys Over Flowers" actors Kim Hyun-joong and Kim Jun, SS501 member Kim Hyung-jun and actress Kim Min-sun turned models on the runway.

Korean celebrities such as Yoon Eun-hye, Hwang-bo, Hwanhee, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Seung-soo and Girls Generation member Yoona attended some of the high-profile fashion shows over the eight-day event.

Tickets to the fashion shows sold like hotcakes. Organizers even had to turn away people at some shows because the halls were already packed.

Men's Wear

As usual, the men's wear collections kicked off fashion week. Most of the designers were particularly inspired by the military look, while other designers sought to reinterpret the classic suit.

Han Sung-hyuk, creative director for Cheil Industries' Mvio brand, presented a collection inspired by the fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes. Camel-colored jackets and coats were accented with herringbone and argyle prints, while pants were cropped at the ankle.

Ultra-stylish gangsters paraded down the runway for Kang Dong-jun's collection, inspired by the crime movie "Carlito's Way." Models were smoking, literally, as they puffed on cigars while wearing vests, boxy jackets, fedora hats, leather jackets and loose trousers.

Trench coats were all over the men's wear collections. Park Sung-chul showed double-breasted trench coats and cape jackets in khaki. Juun J. transformed the trench coat into military-style ponchos and rider jackets.

Classic suits were given a fresh spin, as seen with the slimmer silhouettes, structured jackets and fitted vests by Park Herin, and asymmetrical double lapels and relaxed silhouettes by Chang Kwang-hyo.

Elements of hip-hop, sports and street style came together at Kim Gyu-sik's "staring by Taste Maximum." In a surprise twist, Kim used androgynous-looking females to model well-cut denim jeans, tough-looking motorcycle jackets and layers of thick scarves.

Women's Collections

Black remained the color of choice for most designers, but thankfully, black was complemented with shades of red, yellow, green, blue and white.

Most designers seemed to forego romantic and overtly luxurious designs, in favor of men's wear-inspired jackets and comfortable coats.

Comfortable style is what Imseonoc presented with her collection of flirty dresses, coats without closures and elastic waist pants. Voluminous silhouettes and toned down colors also characterized Song Jain's collection.

The military wear trend in the men's wear collection seemed to have crossed over to women's wear collections. Moon Young-hee tried to inject femininity in jackets and coats, resulting in pretty peplum jackets and stylish coats, made of silk, satin and wool.

Rising designer Ha Sang-beg presented futuristic military uniform-style jackets, coats and dresses with exaggerated details like pockets and epaulets. Yang Hee-min delivered a "decadent chic" collection, which included halter-neck jumpsuits, belted slim coats and jodhpurs.

Sweet and romantic looks were not totally gone for the fall/winter collections. Cho Sung-kyong's Latulle line did not disappoint with retro-romantic dresses, floral prints, cardigans and smoking jackets in luxurious silk, wool and fur.

Doii Lee's collection featured shiny metallic leggings, modern kimono-sleeve dresses and dazzling prints inspired by the Japanese fairy tale "Butterfly Girl."

For his "Troa by Han Song" collection, Han Song introduced mini dresses with floral prints, multi-colored rosette details and asymmetrical padded jackets and tight "leg-hugging pants."

While Son Jung-wan used mainly black and dark gray for her elegant and feminine collection, there were bursts of yellow, gold and blue to brighten it up. Models wore plush fur coats, vests and capes, as well as pleated dresses on the catwalk.

Fashion week would not be complete without shows featuring hanbok or Korean traditional dress. Top designer Lee Young-hee never fails to amaze everyone with her innovative hanbok designs. This season, she impressed with sculptural hanbok skirts, pleated dresses and skirts.

Hwang Jae-bock and Bec Jie introduced ultra-feminine evening dresses and wedding gowns that will be the dream of young brides everywhere.

However, not all of the shows were open to the public. Some designers, such as Andy & Debb, Choi Bum-suk and Jung Hee-jung, had small private presentations for professional local and foreign buyers.



Sunday, June 28, 2009

Morning calm in financial markets despite mad Kim’s nuclear endgame

I feel like Forrest Gump, a barometer of Asian Armageddon. I’ve come to South Korea via Sri Lanka, where the triumphant Rajapakse brothers were parading the bullet-ridden body of Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran on state television to the tune of Star Wars. And now that I’m comfortably billeted in Seoul’s Hotel Shilla, preferred hostelry of Korea’s old-monied corporate clans, local media report that the former president Roh Moo-hyun has just killed himself and mad Kim up north is threatening to irradiate us all in an insane endgame of nuclear brinkmanship. Have I dodged suicide bombers in Sri Lanka only to meet my maker in the last episode of the Cold War?

I’m here to see how they’re dealing with the GEC — that’s global economic crisis. Just fine, as it happens, but another alarming acronym has Korea-watchers a-twitter: ICBMs, the ones Kim Jong-il is pointing across the troubled peninsula and beyond, to Japan and the US. Desperate Kim behaves like a baby throwing toys out of his pram, and the rest of us placate him by throwing money — until the next tantrum, and the one after that. The threats are more serious this time but South Koreans seem to be reacting with admirable sanguinity. Stock and currency markets briefly tottered, commuters grabbed the news on smartphones en route to the office, but they woke the next day to discover that they were all still here, and capitalism proceeded apace.

As for the financial crisis, the Land of Morning Calm is reacting with, well, morning calm. ‘We wake up and get the bad news from New York and London but it’s OK, we had our big crisis in 1998,’ explains HSBC’s Changsoo Lee, ‘so we’ve been well prepared for this one.’ Indeed, remarkably for an export-driven economy — witness the Samsung and LG gadgets and Hyundai and Kia cars in almost everyone’s households everywhere — South Korea is yet to slip into recession, which is more than Japan, Singapore and Taiwan can boast.

More remarkably, if not a little disturbingly, Seoul’s bankers are now launching local versions of the very products that got the rest of us into this global financial kimchee: securitised mortgages. Kookmin Bank has just launched a $1 billion bond anchored by about 30,000 Korean mortgages. But far from the fully leveraged ‘Deadbeat Dad’ loans packaged into America’s subprime nightmare, few Korean homeowners owe more than 50 per cent of the value of their homes — I’m told the state doesn’t allow it, a regulation instituted after the 1998 crisis. The Kookmin facility was six times oversubscribed and 55 per cent of it was taken up by Asian investors; further evidence, if any were needed besides China’s massive continued flotation of the US economy, that the future indeed tilts eastwards.

A friend here told me that Seoul had become ‘very groovy’ in recent years. ‘Lots of jazz places and cool bars have sprung up,’ he reckons, so I asked a lass at the Shilla reception if she could recommend a club. She said there was a ‘soul club’ near the hotel, and it sounded promising. I was imagining finger-snapping Korean beatniks, local versions of Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight. Maybe Stevie Wonder was in town. I set off hopefully, in cool metropolitan black, for a look-see, only to discover that far from being a grungy Motown of the East, the Seoul Club was a rather smart conservative businessmen’s domain, one of those cultural halfway houses that connect expatriate bankers with the local establishment over tennis and cigars.

The last time I was on this peninsula, I was the other side of the Demilitarized Zone. As we know from the grotesque treatment of American reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, recently sentenced to 12 years hard labour, journalists are mostly banned from the Stalinist-and-then-some north. But I once managed to bluff a week’s visa under the guise of being a ‘golf course developer’. Wacky, yes, but more inventive than the covers I’d employed for other countries that didn’t much like foreign hacks — such as Burma, which I’d entered as a ‘pasta salesman’. And it brought the bonus of enabling me to play North Korea’s only golf course, where I asked the manager if he’d ever had the honour of welcoming Dear Leader Kim Jong-il to his links. Oh yes indeed, the manager said, and what a golfer he was, going round in 34 with five holes-in-one and no hole worse than a birdie. That’s about 20 strokes under the world record for 18 holes. So the solution to North Korea’s economic woes isn’t to threaten nuclear mayhem but to launch the Dear Leader on the pro tour, where he’ll surely walk away with a fortune.

For all Seoul’s thrusting commerce and feisty independence, you need only turn on the telly to see who secures it all. North Korea’s belligerence reminds us that the Pentagon still has more than 20 bases in South Korea and 30,000 troops, many of them crammed into a redoubt called Camp Coiner that occupies 60 acres of prime central Seoul real estate. Coiner’s residents are entertained by the ‘Armed Forces Network’, which offers a bizarre and revealing way for the curious visitor to wile away a few hours. Actual news is disturbingly absent, and broadcasts are punctuated by public service announcements for US military personnel. ‘Pick Up After Your Dog’, ‘Learn Your Host Country Customs — They Will Make You Appreciated’ and ‘Try Something New, Eat Where the Locals Eat’. Illustrated by folksy little skits — one African-American grunt discards his Big Mac in favour of garlicky bulgogi — it’s all designed to win Korean hearts and minds, if the Middle American soldiers can drag themselves away from last night’s Letterman show and beat-’em-up Chuck Norris repeats.

Businessman D.H. Park isn’t too fussed about North Korean confrontation, or financial peril. He reckons the way out of the mess is for everyone to love each other. Park spent a decade in London as a City screen-jockey, ‘making the most incredible bonuses’. Then he returned to Seoul to set up a boutique private-equity fund, IWL Partners, in an office so chic it would impress the most jaded Wallpaper editor. IWL? Hmm, I’m wondering as I chat with him — the initials of his partners? ‘No,’ Park says proudly, ‘Invest With Love.’ And so far he has, showing 50 per cent year-on-year returns in his first three years. Crisis, what crisis? There’s little sign of one in Seoul.



After Kim Jong-Il, how might events unfold in North Korea?

Apparent moves by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to anoint his youngest son to succeed him have raised questions about the longevity of the regime in Pyongyang.

The scenarios for how events might unfold range from a smooth power transition to the collapse of the state and reunification with the South -- at an estimated cost of $1 trillion.

Kim, 67, is believed to have suffered a stroke last August. He then disappeared from view, making his first major public appearance in parliament in April, where he looked gaunt and tired. His sudden death or incapacitation cannot be ruled out.

Following are scenarios for how the situation may play out in North Korea over the coming months and years.


The longer Kim lives and remains in reasonable health, the greater the chance of a smooth transition of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, 25. If Jong-un has 15 or 20 years to cement his position, he may be able to continue the Kim dynasty. Kim junior is also believed to have the backing of Jang Song-thaek, effectively the country's number 2 leader. Kim Jong-il in April promoted Jang, his 63-year-old brother-in-law, to the powerful National Defence Commission, which many analysts saw as an attempt to establish a mechanism for the transfer of power, with Jang as kingmaker.

Under this scenario, which is probable, financial market players would watch events in North Korea with interest but not trade dramatically either way. Global powers would seek to ascertain the intentions of the new leadership as it took shape. North Korean policy toward the outside world may not alter much.


The early death or incapacitation of Kim would complicate the transition. Under this scenario, which is also probable, the regime may rally around Jong-un with Jang heading a collective leadership until the son is ready to assume power.

Given his youth, inexperience and the fact few North Koreans even know of his existence, it is hard to see Jong-un taking over in the near future. That puts the onus on the elite to manage the transition. The one thing they have in common is regime survival.

If Kim died suddenly, expect North Asia's financial markets to drop while world powers try to work out who rules a state that has exploded two nuclear devices and has enough fissile material, experts say, to make at least 5-7 more.

Under this scenario, North Korea could become even more bellicose to build internal support.

"We cannot simply wait for Kim's death and hope for the best, because whoever succeeds him is going to need an especially dramatic military crisis to legitimise his rule. What we have seen in the past few weeks may well end up looking tame in comparison," B.R. Myers, an expert on the North's ideology, wrote in the days after North Korea's May 25 nuclear test.


The sudden death of Kim Jong-il could prompt a military coup. The country's recent nuclear test, missile launches and threats of war all indicate the military has a major say in policy.

The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, in a report in January called "Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea", said a military coup was possible.

"Unconfirmed reports of past assassination attempts and military purges, not to mention the apparent precautions Kim takes to ensure his personal security when travelling around the country, all suggest that a military-led coup is quite plausible," the report said.

A coup would be bearish for financial markets given that the military is seen as a prime backer of recent belligerence.


Economic disintegration or a protracted leadership crisis could lead to North Korea's collapse, sending millions across the border into the wealthy and more populous South or across the more open northern border with China. For South Korea, this would wreck its economy and create social upheaval.

While many analysts believe this scenario is unlikely, the Council of Foreign Relations report noted North Korea is a weak state with an economy that has never recovered from a 1990s' contraction and whose population is chronically short of food.

"Under these circumstances, the uncertainty and stress imposed by a lengthy and perhaps ultimately inconclusive leadership struggle on the overall system of governance might prove too much," it said.

It said the country had proved resilient in the past, but pressures could become too intense for it to stay intact.

South Korean estimates have said it would cost $1 trillion or more to absorb the North.

Financial markets in Seoul would plunge given how expensive and messy such a transition could be, especially if there was uncertainty over who controlled the country's nuclear programme and what remnants of the North Korean military might do.



Friday, June 26, 2009

Two Korean restaurants in Budapest

This restaurant is just north of Chain Bridge on the Buda side of Budapest, about a two-minute walk from the cable car.

This is near the old Roman amphitheater (http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM5ZG2_amphitheatre_Budapest_Hungary) near Timar utca, less than a 10 minute walk from the Timar utca train stop (north of Budapest on the Buda side).


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Signs of Korea in Prague (June 2009)


Monday, June 15, 2009

Video: South Korea ready to hang up on cash

Video: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7882229.stm

South Korea is already a few steps ahead in the drive for a cashless society.

In one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet, the e-commerce market is said to be worth around $500 billion a year. Online banking, credit cards and travel cards are already in widespread use.

But the government believes the mobile phone is the key to the future - a payment system that could finally lead to the long-heralded demise of notes and coins. ◦

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Succession at Samsung: Heir apparent moves closer to coronation

The founding family of Samsung is royalty in South Korea, and the country’s Supreme Court, it turns out, is not inclined to regicide. In late May it ruled that Everland, the privately held de facto holding company for the sprawling conglomerate, did nothing wrong when it sold convertible bonds in 1996 at a price prosecutors had contended was unreasonably low. As the bonds were sold for more than the face value attributed to them by the firm, the sale was legitimate, the court said, clearing Samsung’s ailing 67-year-old patriarch, Lee Kun-hee, of charges of breach of trust.

Everland’s bond sale ultimately had the effect of transferring control of the Samsung empire to Mr Lee’s only son, Lee Jae-yong. The other shareholders in Everland, many of whom were closely connected to the Lee family, and all of whom had the option of buying some of the bonds, politely declined. That allowed the younger Mr Lee and his sisters to buy them all.

The Lee family now owns 46% of Everland, which in turn owns 13.3% of Samsung Life, South Korea’s biggest life insurer. Samsung Life owns 7.2% of Samsung Electronics, the world’s biggest electronics company, which owns 35.3% of Samsung Card, the country’s biggest credit-card firm—which in turn owns 25.6% of Everland. The convoluted structure (see chart) helps to deter would-be raiders. Its confusing nature is the source of much criticism within South Korea, especially as other conglomerates such as LG Group have become more transparent. Samsung has promised to simplify things.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Everland’s bond sale removed doubts about whether Lee Jae-yong would preside over the Samsung empire as his father once did. The chaebol, as South Koreans call their conglomerates, recorded sales of $174 billion in 2007, equivalent to 17% of the country’s GDP that year. Samsung, under Lee Kun-hee’s two-decade reign, focused on design, marketing, and research and development. A crucial element of its success was its ability to make decisions rapidly within a strict hierarchy.

The elder Mr Lee resigned last year from several jobs in the group after after being found guilty of tax evasion. But many South Koreans assume that he continues to exercise influence over the chaebol. Meanwhile his son has been travelling the world visiting Samsung offices and meeting with industry titans such as Sony’s Sir Howard Stringer and Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata. Other Samsung executives, including the chairman and the chief executive of Samsung Electronics, have accompanied the younger Mr Lee on his foreign travels.

An extrovert, unlike his reclusive father, the younger Mr Lee is referred to within the chaebol as “J.Y.”. He speaks English and Japanese, having studied at Keio and Harvard universities. But a former Samsung executive says that some senior managers are sniffy about his youth (he is 40) and the failure of an e-commerce venture he managed. At any rate, there is turmoil within the group: many senior executives departed earlier this year amid cost cuts.

There is more trouble coming. By April 2012, under a law that prohibits finance companies’ owning stakes of more than 5% in non-financial firms, Samsung Card will have to sell a 20.6% stake in Everland. Such a sale may trigger a restructuring that could generate big tax bills for Samsung and might threaten the Lee family’s control of the group. There is speculation that Samsung Electronics will become a holding company for the group’s manufacturing units and Samsung Life will control the group’s financial companies. The complicated share sales are just beginning.



Monday, June 08, 2009

New KT Born; KTF Heads into History

After combining KT, the country's largest telephone company and Internet provider, with KTF, the country's second-largest mobile telephone operator, the new KT was born. Today, it is the biggest telecom companies in Korea with total assets of 24 trillion won, annual revenues of 19 trillion won, and a workforce of about 38,000.

The new KT controls about 90% of the country's fixed-line market, 43% of its broadband Internet customers, and 31% of the mobile service market. The company aims to generate annual revenues of 22 trillion won in 2012, more than 3 trillion won in 2008 and secure 2.6 trillion won in operation margin in the same year, up from 1.4 trillion won in 2008. To achieve this goal, the company plans to focus on fixed-mobile communication service to escape from standstill in local calls and high-speed Internet services. By including IPTV and WiBro as its new growth engine, KT can certainly enforce its convergence business.

http://www.telecomskorea.com/ ◦

“Miss Korea Japan” Crowned in Tokyo


Saturday, June 06, 2009

Video: "Thirst" (박쥐) preview with English subtitles


Cartoon: North Korea and the United Nations 2


Conspiracy theories developing in President No’s “suicide”

On the Saturday morning that Roh Moo-hyun died, I asked the mechanic fixing my car his reaction. "I'd like to know who pushed him," he said.

That natural question appeared to have been laid to rest when Moon Jae-in, the former President's closest aide, went on TV to reveal the suicide note on Roh's computer. Police said Roh had distracted his bodyguard with a question about some other hikers and jumped off the rock face to his death.

But in the following days, discrepancies in this story emerged. The bodyguard changed his testimony. Roh had sent him off to the nearby temple on an errand and he returned to find him missing. He had lied because he was afraid.

From this point, the questions start. How do we know this version is the truth? How do we know Roh jumped if no one saw him? How do we know he wrote the note? It came out after the funeral that the CCTV camera had caught Roh leaving at 5:38 a.m., six minutes before, not after, the suicide note was saved on the PC.

Apparently, there was not much blood on the ground.

How come? Why was the bodyguard changed, apparently against Roh's wishes, the day before? Why did he call the Blue House and not for an ambulance when he found Roh on the ground? Why did he put Roh on his back and put him in a car when everyone knows lifting an injured person can kill them? How critical was he when he arrived at the first hospital? Why did the first hospital put pajamas on him before moving him to the second hospital? Who, as one daily and one TV station have reported, is the doctor from the first hospital who has committed suicide, and why?

Each of these questions can, of course be answered. The computer may have auto-saved. Injured people are routinely bundled into taxis. The doctor may be unrelated.

Now consider other government actions. When people started to pay their respects to Roh at a makeshift altar in downtown Seoul after Roh's death, the police deployed as if they considered them ― outnumbered at first ― to be radicals mourning a terrorist.

You could see then, in the lines of ordinary people genuinely upset by the death of their last president, where Korean contempt for authority comes from. It's mutual. The authorities fear the nebulous beast of public sentiment, and consider it something to be obeyed only when it gets out of control.

If you've had dealings with them, you'll know that the police actually make an effort to be civil. But they had a job to do. At one point, a policeman moved in to video the people arranging the altar. One man lost his temper and threw a bottle of water and the policeman retreated. Police grabbed a group of people trying to get across the road to the city square and arrested them. My sister-in-law, the only woman, was let go.

This street drama may not seem very important to non-Koreans. The police wanted to avoid anti-government crowds holding candle-lit protests in the city plaza on the scale of the anti-U.S. beef demonstrations last year. So what? But, in fact, the police action amounted to a constitutional violation of the right to assembly.

Look more closely and you'll see that President Lee has more than a stylistic or communications problem. There are also numerous claims of government interference in news coverage and that TV people have been fired for criticizing the government. A recent story says that the governmental Korea Communications Commission has been "encouraging" business groups not to advertise with the 70-percent government-owned MBC TV network. This amounts to a credible charge of interference in the freedom of the press.

It is no wonder, then, that so many South Koreans have only a passing interest in the North Korean nuclear tests which have the rest of the world's attention. You don't need to have a high level of mistrust to know that North Korea news is always used as a distraction.

It's no wonder, too, as a Transparency International survey revealed this week, that eight out of 10 Koreans do not trust the government's anti-corruption drives. Nor, it seems, does the chief prosecutor, Lim Chae-jin, who offered to resign for the second time saying, "feel it is no longer appropriate for me to command the prosecution when I am overcome by agony and confusion."

Hundreds of academics this week have signed statements calling on the President to make amends and respect democratic rights. If he ignores them, the domestic politics situation will only get worse.


WSJ: A Korean Invasion Blindsides the U.S. Army

Immigrants From Peninsula Swamp Program Offering Citizenship; Other Groups Squeezed

LOS ANGELES -- Suk Joon Lee, a South Korean immigrant, feared his days in the U.S. were numbered. His ice-cream shop wasn't doing well, and if it failed, his investor visa could be revoked.

Then Mr. Lee stumbled upon a Korean-language Web site that described a way out: a program that the Army was about to launch that offered a shortcut to getting U.S. citizenship. The site was created by another Korean immigrant, James Hwang, and it explained in minute detail the steps required to qualify.

"James knew everything about the program, and he wasn't even in the military," says the 27-year-old Mr. Lee. In February, Mr. Lee, along with hundreds of other Korean immigrants who had learned about the pilot program from Mr. Hwang, descended on Army recruiting centers in New York to enlist.

The program was authorized without fanfare late last year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to attract temporary immigrants who speak strategically important languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Korean. The bait: The soldiers could immediately apply for U.S. citizenship, skipping the sometimes decadelong process of securing a green card first.

So many Koreans have applied, however, that the Army doesn't need them all.

Koreans form the largest group among the 8,000 applicants for the program, launched on Feb. 23. Many have excellent credentials, including degrees in medicine and engineering. Almost all are veterans of South Korea's own compulsory military service.

"The quality of these applicants has been phenomenal," says Lt. Col. Peter Badoian, the project officer for the pilot program. "But we didn't anticipate one immigrant community would respond so strongly."

The promise of America lures thousands of South Koreans to the U.S. each year. Korean students enroll in U.S. colleges. Others start small businesses in order to get temporary visas.

But many get tied up in bureaucracy.

That's the predicament Mr. Hwang and his wife, Irene, found themselves in. The couple arrived in the U.S. in 2001 on student visas. Both of them are trained physicians. They held other temporary permits, including H1-B skilled-worker visas. After Mrs. Hwang gave birth to a son in California, the couple in 2006 applied for green cards. Immigration authorities approved Mrs. Hwang in eight months. Mr. Hwang's case languished, held up, he says, by a Federal Bureau of Investigation background check that hadn't been completed.

Immigrants who are permanent residents, such as Mrs. Hwang, have long been eligible to join the U.S. military. In May 2007, she enlisted so she could quickly secure U.S. citizenship and sponsor her dying father to remain with her in the U.S.

Yet her husband's frustration with the green-card process mounted. "Last year, I was one step away from suing the government" for the processing delay, he says.

Then he got wind of a program in the works that would enable temporary immigrants to enlist and become U.S. citizens in six months. Tapping into a Korean-American network in the Army, the Hwangs gathered details about the program months before it was official.

In November 2008, Secretary Gates approved a one-year pilot program that the Army would unveil in New York City within months. Mr. Hwang, who was eager to enlist, felt obligated to share his research with other Koreans in the same bind.

"If the program is going to offer people like me the opportunity to stay in the U.S., I thought I should give as many Koreans as possible the chance to learn about it," says Mr. Hwang.

He created a free site (cafe.daum.net/USmilitary). He specified the eligibility requirements for the program: Applicants must have lived in the U.S. for at least two years and have a valid temporary-resident visa. Enlistees with language skills must agree to a minimum four years of active duty, which could very well be in Iraq or Afghanistan, and four years in the Reserves.

Mr. Hwang started leading free study sessions live online to prepare applicants for the standardized military entrance exam. "He would give us a lot of homework," says Mr. Lee, the struggling ice-cream entrepreneur, about the prep classes held three nights a week.

Mr. Lee, who has spiky, gelled hair and is partial to pink polo shirts, served two years as a conscript in Korea. He says joining the U.S. Army doesn't daunt him.

Neither did the math he needed for the exam. Leafing through pages of algebra, geometry and trigonometry in Mr. Hwang's study guide, Mr. Lee says, "We learned this stuff in junior high in Korea."

But the English vocabulary was tough. Mr. Hwang advised his students to make flash cards. He then quizzed them on the meaning of words such as lament, hasten and mangle.

W.S. Yang, a 30-year-old vocational student who followed Mr. Hwang's tutorials from Salisbury, Md., says that sometimes the sessions stretched to 3 a.m. "I would fall asleep in my college classes the next day," he recalls. Another participant, who logged on from Seoul during work hours, got in some trouble when his boss caught him answering Mr. Hwang's questions.

As word spread about the Army pilot program, recruiting offices across the U.S. were inundated with calls and visits from Koreans. "They knew about the program before we did," says Sgt. Joshua Cannon, who runs an Army recruiting center in Los Angeles.

In February, Mr. Lee boarded a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York so he could be one of the first in line. He handed over his birth certificate, high-school diploma and college transcripts. He answered an "enlistment prescreening checklist" with questions like, "Do you have all your toes?" and "Have you ever had any body parts pierced?" He answered yes on the first, no on the second.

All told, he made three trips to New York and spent about $3,000 in his quest to enlist. He reports for basic training on Aug. 18 and then will train as a dental technician. Mr. Yang of Maryland is looking forward to working as an Apache helicopter repairman.

The Army recently expanded the pilot program to Los Angeles, home to the largest Korean community in the U.S. Koreans accounted for 20 out of the 22 applicants who had shown up at a recruiting station in a suburban mall by the second afternoon.

"It's crazy here," says Sgt. Cannon as he tried to help two Koreans and handle a barrage of phone inquiries.

The Army continues to process applications from Koreans, but it is unlikely to accept all those who qualify. "The Army also needs speakers of Pashtu, Urdu and Arabic," says Lt. Col. Badoian.

Mr. Hwang says he is committed to maintaining his site, which now includes tips from fresh enlistees. One recent post recommends a particular recruiter in Long Island City, N.Y.; another complains about the long wait for a physical exam.

This month, Mr. Hwang gathered about a dozen of his "recruits" for a celebratory weekend in Las Vegas. But after setting off the Korean enlistment frenzy, he himself won't be signing up.

It so happens, he received his green card in early February -- just before the Army launched the pilot program.



Friday, June 05, 2009

Cartoon: North Korea and the United Nations


Company sues dead South Korean actress for being beaten - and wins

Models who failed to maintain appropriate dignity as representatives of the products they represent should compensate for the damages caused to their advertiser, the top court ruled.

The Supreme Court reversed the original ruling and ruled in favor of a construction company that filed a suit against the deceased actress Choi Jin-sil, who committed suicide last October.

The company, upon hiring the top actress as their representing model in March 2004, concluded a contract stating Choi's duties to pay back 500 million won ($399,361), should she depreciate the company's social reputation.

However, in August, Choi appeared on television and newspapers with her face full of bruises, allegedly caused by the violence of her then husband and retired baseball player Cho Sung-min.

Choi and Cho, who had been living apart since 2002, divorced soon after the incident.

The advertiser company thus filed a suit against the actress, requesting for 3 billion won as compensation. The amount included the 500 million won in damages as stated in the contract, additional compensation of 400 million won and 210 million won in advertising costs spent by the company.

"The purpose of the brand model contract is to use the model's social reputation and images to draw the customers' interest," said the Supreme Court in the ruling. "The model's failure to maintain an adequate image constitutes a breach of the hiring contract."

The concept of the apartment Choi was supposed to advertise was dignity and happiness, and Choi, as its model, was under the obligation to act accordingly, said the court.

A lower court said in an earlier ruling that Choi could not be held responsible for depreciating the image of the apartment or the company as she had not been proven guilty of causing her former husband's violence.

Choi's mother presented herself at court, as legal representative of her two children who succeeded their mother's duties and became defendants of the case.

The estimated value of Choi's estate is about 5 billion won, including real estate and bank savings, according to her family.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Kia Motors' Cheap Chic

When Shin So Hyun shopped for a compact car in April in Seoul, it didn't take her long to go for an $11,200 Forte from Kia Motors. "Of the cars in my budget, the Forte has the best design," says Shin, an insurance company planning manager in her late 20s. Few drivers would ever say that in the U.S., where Kia is generally seen as the opposite of style. But thanks to its new German design chief, Kia is making a splash at home and has hopes of doing the same in the U.S.

While Korean car sales plunged 15.2% in this year's first quarter, Kia's rose 6.7%. That has boosted its domestic market share to 31% from 24.6% the previous year, mostly at the expense of General Motors (GM) and Renault. Kia is also a star on the Seoul bourse, with its share price more than doubling so far this year, vs. a 27% gain for the benchmark Korea Composite Stock Price Index. "There's no question Kia's new design is improving its brand image," says Suh Sung Moon, auto analyst at brokerage Korea Investment & Securities in Seoul.

Kia will find out whether cheap chic has broader appeal as it rolls out its newest models in North America and Europe over the next couple of years. The first, the Soul, a boxy crossover vehicle that looks like Nissan's Cube and Toyota's Scion xB, just went on sale in the U.S. in April for $14,000 to $18,600.

The U.S. marketplace may be ready for Kia, with buyers turning to lower-priced vehicles. Kia's share stands at 3.1%, up from 2.4% a year ago. Style could give it a further selling point. Analysts say the company could poach from Korea's other carmakers and America's Big Three. Daniel Gorrell, president of Auto Stratagem, a research and consulting company in Tustin, Calif., thinks even Honda and Toyota could be vulnerable.

But Kia has to prove its vehicles are as well-built as they are good-looking. "They need to get people past the cheap Korean car image," says Gorrell.

At the heart of Kia's makeover is chief designer Peter Schreyer, whom the company hired away from Volkswagen 2 1/2 years ago. Schreyer, 55, who tends to dress all in black at official functions, made his name during his eight years as design chief at Audi. A repeat award winner in Germany, he was the one who shaped the TT roadster and the 1997 Audi A6 sedan, cars that raised the brand's status.

In Korea, Schreyer's latest product, the Sorento, is creating buzz. Even before the redesigned SUV hit showrooms in May, more than 5,000 drivers had put in orders. The base model will cost a bit more than $20,000 in Korea, about 5% more than the previous model. The new Sorento, which will be the first vehicle to be built in Kia's plant in West Point, Ga., is scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. early next year.

Schreyer has assigned designers at the automaker's three studios—in Los Angeles, Frankfurt, and Namyang, south of Seoul—to compete with one another to complete the rest of the lineup by 2011. When they're done, Kia's cars will still be low-end, but they won't necessarily look like it.