Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Food-on-a-Stick - Korea and the World

http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/03/foods-on-a-stick-day-skewers-candy-apples-corn-dogs-yakitori-fondue-pie-pops.html Today is a special day for stick-food lovers. Thanks to SE:Talk, we learned that it's Something on a Stick Day. What qualifies as a stick-food? Corn dogs, yakitori, kebabs, pie pops, fondue, and really anything else that's stabbable with a stick. Slideshow: http://tinyurl.com/4j7l8dk State fairs are usually full of stick-foods. The Minnesota State Fair, for example, sells 60 different foods on a stick, ranging from corn on the cob to spaghetti. In Seoul, South Korea, you can find street vendors selling Tornado Potato, a swirl-cut potato wrapped around a long stick that's deep-fried. Speaking of deep-fried, we've also seen french-fry-coated bacon on a stick, rice-battered hot dogs, and in Ecuador, "chuzos" are deep-fried sausage and plaintain skewers. For those celebrating at home today, here are recipes for 13 of our favorite stick-foods. In most parts of the world, it's not exactly outdoor grilling season yet, so here are some indoor tips. ◦

Saturday, March 26, 2011

China cracks down, South Korea speeds up


By Adrienne Mong

SEOUL, South Korea – It’s a strange thing to be reading about China’s continued crackdown on the Internet from our temporary perch in Seoul.

The last time I was here was in 1989. The Pre-Internet Age.

This time, on my first visit in more than 20 years, South Korea owns the mantle of the world’s fastest Internet connection, according to a quarterly survey known as the State of the Internet by Akamai. It's on average four times as fast as that of the U.S.

But that just isn’t fast enough.

By the end of next year, the South Korean government plans to have every home in the nation hooked up to the Internet at a speed of one gigabit per second. Imagine being able to download the entire Godfather trilogy in 20 seconds.

In the meantime, over in China, land of the Great Firewall, reports are emerging that the download speed of Gmail has plunged. We won’t get into the technicalities of kbps, but let’s just say Gmail is now operating 45 times slower than the most popular free Chinese instant messaging service known as QQ.

The disruptions to Gmail don’t end there. For weeks now, ordinary Gmail users have complained about interrupted service. Writer Wang Lixiong tweeted that he received this message from Gmail when he tried to log in: “Your account is locked, because abnormal activities are detected. You may have to wait 24 hours before you can log in again.”

Another user told my colleague Bo Gu that China Unicom appears to be blocking Gmail entirely from mobile devices.

And in the wake of calls for Jasmine rallies foreign journalists in China have been vigilant about attempts to hack into their email accounts.

The disrupted service coincides with a surge in reported failures of several VPNs (virtual private networks), designed to circumvent China’s Internet firewall.

On Monday, Google accused the Chinese government of obstructing access to its Gmail service, saying the company had checked everything on its own end and concluded that the problems are the result of a “blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied the accusation.

Speedy Internet = Open Internet
South Korea’s drive to lead the way globally in broadband access originated in the mid-1990s, but its efforts stepped up immediately after its economy was crippled by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. And technology became a cornerstone of the government’s strategy to reboot and refashion its economy.

Seoul's approach to the Internet is instructive. Although there are many reasons it has managed to power ahead of the pack, there is one that stands out in sharp relief against what’s happening in China: the open (and highly competitive) nature of its telecoms market.

“The idea behind an “open” system is essentially that, for a fee, broadband providers must share the cables that carry Internet signals into people’s homes,” says one report. “Companies that build those lines typically oppose this sharing. A number of governments, including South Korea and Japan and several European countries, have experimented with or embraced infrastructure-sharing as a way to get new companies to compete in the broadband market.”

China doesn’t allow that kind of openness—either in its infrastructure or in its content. ◦

Japan radiation fear sparks South Korea diaper rush


By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - The risk of radiation contamination from Japan's damaged nuclear power stations has sparked food bans across the globe and more surprisingly, a buying frenzy from South Korean mothers who fear their favorite Japanese-made diapers may suddenly become unavailable.

Cho Myung-jin, who organizes online group-buying for Japanese diapers, saw her website collapse on Tuesday under the weight of traffic as panicked South Koreans chased brands they believe are better quality than locally-made products.

"The reaction was scary. Some mothers did not go to work to reserve diapers," the 31-year old mother told Reuters.

According to Auction Corp, the second-largest online shopping website in South Korea, sales of Japanese diapers have doubled since the quake.

After her social commerce website collapsed, Cho opened a new message board selling 300 packs of diapers, limiting sales to one pack per person, and said she received 2,000 offers in a minute.

She said the price of Japanese diapers available online has nearly doubled to 150,000 won ($133.30) a package.

"I feel sorry that they sold out, upsetting parents who had waited for days," said Cho, whose 22-month old infant uses the Japanese product. ◦

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

South Korea’s Smart Grid Will Lead the New Green Revolution


South Korea is attempting to bring about a new green revolution with its own hands in an attempt to both cut down on CO2 emissions and also to make their electricity market more efficient.

They’re pouring somewhere around the ballpark of $7.18 billion dollars into making a new smart grid for the country. There will be an annual spending of $358 million until 2016. At this point there will be about $2.1 billion spent per year on the project.

It’s estimated that by the year 2030, the complete investment will have been made. You might find yourself wondering what a smart grid could possibly do to help the country. The reason for this is that those using it will only find themselves using as much electricity as they need to.

Even when you try to consciously cut down on electricity usage, you don’t have as much control as you may want to on how much you use. With the implementation of this smart grid, consumers will have a much bigger grip on how much they consume as long as they remember to use home appliance monitoring and give feedback directly through the grid.

In recent years, South Korea has been investing heavily in green technologies and policies. Despite the fact that the nation has been listed as a high-carbon polluter within the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, critics have been praising the fact that it has been attempting to clean up its act.

For example, it has turned landfills into hydrogen generators, constructed gigantic gardens on rooftops and in some places has even replaced traditional automobiles with electric scooters for police officers. Compared to other countries it has been investing much more in alternative forms of energy. For example, it has been estimated that out of the 972.1 billion dollars included in the United States’ stimulus package, only 11.6 percent has been green technology.

In comparison, out of the 38 billion dollars in South Korea’s stimulus package, a whopping 80.5 percent of that includes green technology. Some countries are doing an even worse job. Japan received 485.9 billion in its stimulus package but only a minuscule 2.6 percent of that is green technology.

South Korea is leading the way for alternative energy usage. The nation’s highways are adorned with solar panels. Seoul is also covered in parks, restored tree-lined streams that were previously covered by urban development and plenty of other green gestures.

For its laudable efforts, the International Council of Societies of Industrial design named Seoul the World Design City for 2010. This is a title well deserved, but only time will tell how much the smart grid will contribute to cutting down on emissions. ◦

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jumbo size burger introduced at GS Supermarkets


A jumbo burger four times bigger than the McDonald’s bulgogi burger has hit the market.

Named “The Greatest Burger,” it is has been available for sale since Friday at GS Supermarkets nationwide.

The super-sized burger, which is 25 centimeters in diameter and weighs about 600 grams, is served in a cardboard box, not wrapped in a paper, as it is about the size of a regular-sized pizza.
Although the price is cheap for its size, the burger has everything inside -- a chicken patty, a slice of tomato, cucumber, lettuce and pickles.

The burger is priced at 12,000 won, but is available at 5,000 won until Thursday during the promotional period.

The burgers were sold out on the first day of the sale, as the news circulated rapidly via word of mouth.

GS Supermarkets’ move to launch the new burger marks the latest entrant in a series of ultra-cheap foodstuffs introduced by big retailers such as Lotte Mart and E-Mart. Lotte Mart stopped selling its 5,000 won chicken, about one-third of usual price, after suffering a backlash regarding its pricing that was said to potentially hurt small chicken franchises.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Expats to teach south Korean students about their cultures


Seoul city government said yesterday that it again will sponsor a program in which expatriates will teach the culture and history of their homeland to Korean students by visiting elementary, middle and high schools in Seoul.

"The goal of the program is to nurture students to become leaders in a globalized world and help them understand cultural diversity, as there are more than 260,000 expatriates living in Seoul right now," said Go Hong-seok, a Seoul government official.

Begun in 2009 when roughly 4,000 students took classes by expats, this year’s lectures will start in April and last until December, the Seoul city government said. Roughly 50 foreign volunteers from 16 countries including Nepal and Ireland will teach in classes with less than 30 students.

In an effort to boost the quality of the program this year, the government said it will work with embassies and foreign institutes to encourage teachers to introduce their folk music and dances to Korean students. Seoul city government is now recruiting interpreters. For teachers, applicants can send their resume anytime to the government. ◦

Friday, March 18, 2011

Korea’s Labor Force: Muscle Behind Economic Miracle (April 2010)


By Andrew Salmon

Economic pundits examining South Korea in summer 1953 had few positive signs to assess. The war had resolved nothing: The peninsula remained divided; and inter-Korean animosities were fiercer than ever. Much of the nation's urban area and national infrastructure was devastated. Moreover, most of the industry, and key natural resources ― minerals, precious metals, hydro-electric power ― lay in the North. The country was a basket case ― yet three decades later, was being lauded as an ``economic miracle.''

Post-war South Korea had only one significant resource: people. And they hardly looked formidable. Many 19th century Western observers considered Koreans corrupt, backward and lazy; many 20th century observers saw them as fractious and brutal. Yet the seeds to transform a nation of peasants into a nation of workers ― in 1960, workers in the agricultural, forestry and fishery sectors accounted for 63 percent of the labor force; by 2008, this had plunged to 7.2 percent ― were planted early in South Korea's history.

Educational Premium

The nation's first president, Rhee Syngman, enacted universal education. He was building on an existing cultural construct: Educational achievement has been revered by Koreans since at least the 15th century. For a nation as a poor as Korea, Rhee's investment was risky: As much as 19 percent of national budget was devoted to the project.

The system was based heavily on rote-learning, with particular emphasis on successfully inculcating the basics of numeracy and literacy (Korea boasts one of the lowest illiteracy rates on earth). But beyond classroom teaching per se, the culture implicit in the wider educational system helped incubate an effective labor force that was tailor-made for the manufacturing industry that would appear in the 1960s.

In Korean education, the end result ― i.e. achievement in examinations ― is more important than the learning process itself. For this reason, students are expected to study long ― by Western standards, ridiculous ― hours. Moreover, conformity, not individuality is demanded: team mentality dominates. Teachers enforce rules with strict discipline. All these factors would prove effective in forging a labor force that could read and count; was less focused on process than on outcome; was conditioned to working excessive hours; and was disciplined and responsive to orders.

Korean males were subject to another kind of training: national service. Military training further inculcated discipline, spiced with a fierce patriotism ― a force that could be leveraged by authority figures in all areas of life. Nothing was more sacred than working for the group, the company, the nation.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, we had a kind of military morale at work sites,'' said Choi Im-sik, manager of the Labor and Government Relations Team at the Federation of Korean Unions, or FKTU. "Labor obeyed without question.''

A government that prioritized export-led growth provided technical education that upgraded skills as the nation transitioned from light (textiles, wigs, dolls) to heavy (petrochemicals, electronics, construction) industry. In 1967, vocational training was introduced. Technical high schools, such as the Construction High School in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, the Electronics High School in Busan and the Mechanical High School in Gimhae were established. Graduates particularly valued by industry were exempted military service; university departments set aside quotas for technical high school students. In 1976, official policy obliged employers to provide compulsory vocational training.

All for the Company

Unlike communist states, Korea ― which certainly benefited from a strong, Socialist-tinted dose of central planning ― used private, rather than public corporations as its economic growth engine. Companies leveraged their staff to the maximum.

Conglomerates ran courses for new hires that could best be described as indoctrination programs: military-type group training inculcated company spirit. Many companies, even small ones, had a paternalistic side. Teams, shifts and departments fostered close relationships, cemented by after-hours bonding. Firms sponsored in-house sports squads, and weekend excursions that often included games and team-building exercises.

Management was hands on. Department heads attended staffers' weddings and family funerals, even playing the role of match-makers. In the early days of economic growth at least, corporate leadership was personal and charismatic: Hyundai godfather Chung Ju-young was noted for wrestling with his workers. Bosses were known for getting their hands dirty. As CEO of Hyundai Construction, Lee Myung-bak, a typical workaholic, dismantled a bulldozer to see what made it tick.

These various factors engendered powerful loyalties. A 1996 report by global HR agency Humanbridge noted: "Korean employees are expected to dedicate themselves not only to their work, but also to the success of their company. While there is no guarantee of lifetime employment, Koreans generally do not approve of job-hopping.''

The end result was a workforce willing to sacrifice itself for the company. One example was exceptional working hours: Korea routinely topped international surveys (the nation currently has the longest working hours in the OECD). While Korean workers might lag behind those of more developed nations in productivity terms, willingness to work long and hard made up for it.

These fearsome hours ― which corroded quality of life, particularly family life ― did not go unrewarded. As members of an intensely ambitious society, workers sought extra income from overtime and bonuses. A 2007 study by scholars Lee Byung-nam and Rhee Yin-sog, examining manufacturing companies between 1972 and 1987, found that bonuses did, indeed, reflect increased output. "Even these days, Korean workers work hard,'' said Dr. Kang Choong-ho, spokesman for the FKTU. "They want to earn more.'' Indeed: With Korea having customarily been a producer-led, rather than a consumer-focused economy, living costs have always been high.

Dark Side

But there were other factors behind Korean workers' extraordinary output: Growth-obsessed authoritarian governments were untrammeled by such niceties as labor rights or the need to fund social welfare. "From the 1960s to the 1980s, Korean economic growth was the result of the sacrifices of the workers,'' said Kang.

Labor consciousness rose in 1970 after the self-immolation of Chon Tae-il in protest at the sweatshop conditions endured by textile workers (SEE BOX) but the soil for union formation remained stony for another 17 years. For one thing, in the aftermath of the war, any left-leaning organization was looked upon with suspicion. In a 2007 study, researcher Hwang Suk-man found that, absent an environment in which unions could be openly organized, many union leaders based their leadership on personal charisma; when they were jailed or otherwise removed, unions imploded. Moreover, government cynically used the gender divide, pitting males against activist female workers in the 1970s. A 1980 Labor Law revision banned formation of sectoral unions, limiting unions to individual companies.

Historical suppression of unions detonated explosive events in summer 1987, when Koreans won democracy after almost a decade of struggle. Union membership soared. So did industrial disputes: between July and September, over 3,000 conflicts occurred, exceeding the total number in the previous two decades. Some were spectacular: Seoul deployed helicopters, landing craft and more riot policemen to break up a strike at Hyundai than the British government had used soldiers to recapture the Falkland Islands. Wages soared across industries. The early-mid 1990s were the heyday of union activism; a general strike in 1997 forced the Kim Young-sam administration to back down from changes to labor laws. But in 1998, with the specter of mass layoffs hovering due to the Asian economic crisis, a Tripartite Commission, formed of representatives of government, management and labor was formed to mediate industrial disputes.

Korea's Labor Force Today

An iconic image of today's Korea is massed ranks of head-banded unionists, waving banners, thrusting fists in the air and roaring in unison: ironically, militaristic organization, so valuable to management in the past, is now utilized by labor. Two national umbrella unions remain active, and continue to use the language and paraphernalia of struggle.

Such high-profile activism masks that the fact that just 10.5 percent of the workforce is unionized, and Korea's top company, Samsung, lacks a union. While foreign firms routinely beg Seoul to "increase labor market flexibility'' (i.e., ease dismissal rules) over 50 percent of the workforce, the FKTU notes, is either part time or temporary. Moreover, as services industries expand, union organization becomes more difficult. (One exception to this truism is Korea's finance sector, which has unusually strong unions by global standards.)

Korean workforce vulnerabilities include increasing wage levels and poor productivity, but retain strengths against counterparts in, for example, China, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Dr. Lee Jong-il, an HR specialist at Samsung Economic Research Institute lists them: "Creative capacity, high global literacy, high attainments in scholarship ― more than 80% of workers have university degrees ― and a high IT capacity.'' Koreans agonize that the education system that successfully supported the metal-bashing era is inappropriate for a knowledge-based economy, but hundreds of thousands of Koreans studying abroad bring home new skills and new concepts.

The rise of Korea from war's ashes is not exclusively due to labor. Vision; efficient central planning; authoritarian governments that prioritized economic growth over political development; generous post-war U.S. aid, trade and technology transfer terms; imports of industrial consultants from Europe, Japan and the U.S.; all contributed to Korea's economic ascent.

But historically, labor's role, has been underplayed. None of the factors above would have taken effect without the efforts ― and sacrifices ― of the workforce; Korea's labor was the muscle that built the miracle. ◦

Massages in Seoul


If working hard has left you keen for a break, but you’re all out of holidays, then look no farther than Seoul. For exotic, blissful relaxation in the big city ― on a range of budgets ― let your mind travel and your body experience the pleasure of some of the world’s best massage traditions.

Thai massage uses deep pressure and stretches and is based on the idea that air, or “lom,” enters the body and travels along a myriad of “sen” or vessels. Therapists manipulate these sen lines and combine this with positions akin to yoga.

Located in a sleepy residential enclave of Gangnam, Rai Ra offers a truly restful taste of this globally recognized treatment.

Set in a house, the atmosphere is welcoming. You are greeted by floral decor and a living room complete with fireplace. Therapists here are Thai, making for an authentic experience.

In place of a massage table, Rai Ra use mats on the floor ― as in Thailand. Customers also wear pale pink Thai trousers with matching T-shirts if they opt for the country’s traditional massage, known there as “nuat phaen boran,” or ancient manner massage.

After carefully covering you in warm towels, leaving just a candle in the corner and a softly-dimmed bulb for light, the massage begins, feet first.

Slow and expert, the therapist maneuvers your body with full use of theirs. With a moderate level of pressure, the massage incorporates not only hand techniques, but also knees to knead buttocks and feet to ease down on heels.

Ever-gentle, the therapist sneaks in some more precise deep tissue work ― with special concentration on the shoulders ― but there is never a hint of pain.

Ending in a cross-legged position and a dream-like state, this soothing massage helps you happily drift off to the idyllic beaches of Thai islands.

An hour’s full-body massage at Rai Ra costs 55,000 won. For more information and directions call (02) 567-4711.

“Champissage,” or Indian head massage is said to unblock pockets of negative energy. Particularly recommended for those suffering with achy necks and shoulders, they are also said to help clear the mind and improve mental clarity.

“This treatment helps stimulate the auto-immune system of the body by relieving stress-induced tension and filling the body with positive energy,” explained Sarah Kim, Team Leader of AWAY Spa at the W Seoul Walkerhill.

Tricky to find in Korea, Indian head massages are a real treat ― especially for those who work hunched in front of a computer.

Amid an ultra-modern, plush white setting, the AWAY spa experience starts with a firm shoulder, neck and chest massage, kneading away knots.

The therapist begins on the head slowly, working a sesame aromatherapy oil ― infused with menthol and lavender ― in circular motions into the scalp, one small section at a time.

Gradually, pressure and speed intensify. Using whole palms, each side of the head are rubbed in grand, sweeping motions. The movements then become faster, honing in on acupressure points ― some shooting a tingling sensation down the back of the legs.

The treatment culminates with a warm head wrap and gentle arm stretches. From here, customers are guided to the W Chill room, for a choice of hot and cold teas, five channels of chill-out music and the chance to lay back and fully enjoy a moment of calm.

An Indian Head massage at the W Seoul’s AWAY Spa starts at 120,000 won for 60 minutes. For more information call (02) 2022-0450 or visit www.wseoul.co.kr.

Japanese Shiatsu for health and healing

Shiatsu, Japanese for “finger pressure,” is a rejuvenating massage using precise, rolling motions and compressions to promote the body’s flow of energy ― ki ― and therefore good health.

“Shiatsu’s principles evolved from a hybridization of traditional Japanese massage, Chinese medical practices and ‘Western’ anatomy and physiology,” said Dr. Sean Kim, CEO of Sky Wellness Center in Itaewon.

The clinic focuses primarily on corrective and chiropractic treatments, but therapist Lance Kim offers more massage for relaxation, fusing his Korea-influenced techniques with other traditions.
In bright and professional environs, clients are asked to complete a form about their health prior to their session to ensure maximum benefit. The staff here ― Koreans and expats ― are extremely knowledgeable.

After changing into shorts and a T-shirt, the therapist begins, placing slow but strong compressions along the length of the body. For him, the massage is an active affair, as he uses hands, feet and forearms to achieve the desired result. For the client, it is a fantastic way to unwind.

The massage is recommended by the clinic for people with back, neck and shoulder pain, as well as headaches, insomnia, stress and a host of other complaints ― and it’s not hard to understand why. Lulled into a deep relaxation during the massage, the gradual end to the session ― arriving through satisfying stretches ― leaves you feeling light and supple.

Shiatsu massage at Sky Wellness costs 69,000 for an hour for one person, with a reduced rate of 62,000 won each for a couple. For more information and reservations call (02) 749-4849 or visit www.skychiro.com.

Swedish luxury

Developed at the University of Stockholm in 1812, the classic techniques used in Swedish massage are now used as a foundation for many other massages around the world.

In particular, they are “effective in improving the blood’s circulation and releasing muscle pain by stimulating the outer muscles,” said Jeon Sook-jin, team leader at the Grand Hyatt’s spa.

The Swedish full-body here is for all-out pampering, as down to every detail this experience is luxurious.

The Spa is designed on a natural theme, blending hues of cream and white for its soothing color scheme, with a mix of fresh white flowers adorning each room.

As this is an oil massage, clients are requested to undress in the adjacent, well-equipped, shower room first. Beginning face down, you are treated to the aroma of cleansing frankincense through the face-hole in the massage table.

To the sounds of one of eight tranquil background tracks such as “calm” or “classical,” the masseuse begins by enveloping each foot in a warm, wet cloth, before gently rubbing a soothing balm into them.

Then the sweeping, sunflower-oil-coated strokes, typical of Swedish massage, begin. Working toward the heart, the hand-waves work their magic from tense backs down to tired, knotted calves.

The knee work here really stands out. The therapist walks a delicate line, with encircling finger tips, between lingering sensitivity and rippling tension release.

After a period of relaxation, and a dash of energizing face mist, the therapist gently eases you to a sitting position. From here you are free to rouse yourself slowly in a nearby arm chair, with rooibus tea and macaroons for refreshment.

The Classic Swedish 60 at The Spa costs 145,000 won. For more information and reservations call (02) 799-8808 or visit http://seoul.grand.hyatt.com.

Invigorating Chinese foot rub

The ancient practice of foot massage in China goes back about 5,000 years. It was originally intended for healing within Oriental medicine, rather than for relaxation purposes.

Using the principles of reflexology, it focuses on acupressure points on the feet, which are said to correspond to other parts of the body. A toe massage, for example, is said to clear sinuses.

Hongsuryeo is a dedicated Chinese massage shop in Apgujeong. The friendly staff here all hail from China.

Quiet and atmospheric, with warm, Chinese-themed decor, customers are ushered directly into one of the treatment rooms to change into the shorts and T-shirt provided.

To begin, feet are plunged into a steaming hot lemon soak, and you are left to luxuriate and unwind, coddled in a warm blanket.

The massage itself takes place with the customer lying face-up on a massage table. After moisturizer has been liberally rubbed into both feet, the invigorating massage starts.

Both fast and vigorous, this is one which should leave you feeling sprightly and refreshed. The strong rubbing motions ensure that you feel the boost in circulation, even as you lay motionless.

Using a quick combination of techniques, the therapist alternates the intriguing mastery of acupressure with rolling leg motions.

To get the blood to flow from tired and weary feet, a particularly impressive move ― quick and firm ― begins at the ball of the foot and continues up past the ankle and right up the lower leg.

The session culminates using elements of sports massage.

An hour-long Chinese foot massage at Hongsuryeo costs 55,000 won. For more information call (02) 549-1005. ◦

Monday, March 14, 2011

Koreans in Japan: Shoddy Treatment


A foreigner in her own home
Shoddy treatment of its Korean residents once again deals Japan a black eye

In a part of Kyoto so trusting that vegetables are sold via honesty boxes, a 72-year-old woman hides in her house in fear, she says, of foreigner-baiting right-wing thugs. On March 4th it emerged in parliament that she had donated ¥250,000 ($3,000) over five years to the political funds of Seiji Maehara, whom she befriended when he was a fatherless teenager and who rose to become foreign minister. On March 6th he resigned.

The donation was illegal because she is a resident of Japan who was born in what is now part of South Korea. That makes her technically a foreigner. Mr Maehara says he did not know of her gift, and she says she did not know it was forbidden. Speaking bitterly through the intercom of her home, she says that she came to Japan when she was five, has paid tax and “the highest amount of national health insurance” since she started her barbecued-beef restaurant 37 years ago, and “knows nothing about South Korea”. But because she has never taken Japanese citizenship, she is not allowed to play a role in politics.

Like other of the 406,000 zainichi, Koreans resident in Japan, she has sought to avoid discrimination by adopting a Japanese name (which, mercifully, the press has not disclosed). That would make it hard for any politician to know her nationality. But Shoji Nishida, an opposition lawmaker, heard that a photograph of her and Mr Maehara hung in her restaurant. Barbecue restaurants are often run by zainichi, and Mr Nishida combed the minister’s political-funds report to see if she was a donor. For Mr Maehara, the repercussions were swift.

The incident exposes the unsatisfactory status of Koreans in Japan as descendants of those brought over, often forcibly, during Japan’s brutal colonisation of the Korean peninsula. The Democratic Party of Japan has unsuccessfully sought to change the law to allow permanent Korean residents to vote in local elections.

On the one hand, such permanent residents are free to renounce their South Korean citizenship (and roots) in order to secure their political rights, however much they dislike Japan’s historical legacy. On the other, shoddy tactics to expose what looks like a well-meaning woman’s mistake will only make them less trusting of the only place they know as home. ◦

Japan Quake Affects Little in South Korean Economy, So Far


By Evan Ramstad
The effect of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami on South Korea’s economy seemed small on the first day of business since the twin disasters.

South Korea’s benchmark stock index, the Kospi, initially traded lower Monday. But as the day wore on, investors gained confidence that the South Korean businesses would experience few effects, stock prices recovered and the Kospi ended the day at 1,971, up almost 1% from Friday’s close of 1,955.

There was a notable exception: Korean firms associated with the nuclear-power industry suffered steep drops in share value. Shares in KEPCO Engineering & Construction, a designer of nuclear power plants, and KR Plant Service & Engineering, which maintains and operates nuclear plants, both fell about 14%.

Various branches of the government and the Bank of Korea announced they were setting up “emergency” committees and task forces to assess the potential effect on the Korean economy. Several committees in the National Assembly said they would hold hearings to review how South Korea was helping Japan and what the economic impact might be here.

On the trade front, South Korea imports about $65 billion worth of goods from Japan every year, accounting for about 15% of overall imports. Much of that is production equipment that South Korean manufacturers use to make steel, cars, electronics and petrochemical products.

At mid-afternoon, South Korea’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy noted the connection in its first official assessment, which said: “Some Korean firms rely significantly on Japan for materials and components to complete their products. If conditions in Japan worsen, that will also disrupt our industries, hurting Korea’s exports.”

The ministry cited several key components imported from Japan that might be among the first disrupted, including steel for shipbuilding, system integration chips for electronics products and components for flat-screen panels.

Several Korean companies said Monday they were in touch with Japanese suppliers to find out what was happening, but no one announced any disruptions in supplies from Japan or production in Korea.

Analysts at Citibank published a sector-by-sector analysis on the potential impact in South Korea. They concluded that Korean petrochemical companies will benefit because they’ll be asked to fill in for some of the refining capacity that Japan lost in the disaster. Steel companies may benefit from higher steel prices shaped by disruptions in Japan’s steel output.

Korean banks and insurance firms, with little exposure to Japan, fell in a neutral category in the Citibank assessment.

The sector most likely to lose, the Citibank analysts said, was tourism and, to a smaller degree, retail. Japanese tourists have poured into Korea since early 2009, when the gap between the Japanese yen and Korean won made it very cheap for them to visit and shop in South Korea. Japanese tourists account for about 2% of sales at some department stores.

Longer-term, South Korean businesses, government officials and economists will watch ever more closely the value of the Japanese yen. If the yen strengthens against the U.S. dollar as some economists predict, that will make the value of the Korean won look less expensive against the dollar. In turn, that should make Korean products that are exported to dollar-based markets more attractive and boost the Korean economy. ◦

Sunday, March 13, 2011

South Korean team to head for Shanghai to investigate sex scandal


A team of South Korean officials arrived in Shanghai on Sunday to investigate an alleged sex-for-influence scandal involving a Chinese woman and several South Korean diplomats.

South Korean officials said the previous day that the team of officials from the Prime Minister's Office and foreign ministry plans to make the on-site investigation at the South Korean Consulate General in Shanghai from Monday for six days.

At least four South Korean diplomats, including a former consul general, were found to have had relations with the 33-year-old Chinese woman, who allegedly exercised her influence over them to help Chinese people obtain South Korean visas quickly and easily.

The diplomats were also reportedly accused of leaking information such as phone numbers of high-level South Korean officials to the woman, identified by her surname Deng.

Analysts, however, say that the probe efforts in China may face obstacles as Deng's whereabouts still remain unknown and it is not clear whether Chinese authorities will cooperate with the Korean investigation team if it goes digging outside of consular affairs in the tightly controlled nation.

"We will cooperate with the investigation team's probe so that it can promptly wrap up the case that took place within the consulate office and stabilize consulate affairs," said Ahn Chong-ki, who replaced the scandal-ridden former consul chief on Friday. ◦

Video: Dunkin Donuts in South Korea


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Biting Quip by Samsung’s Lee Shocks Korea


By Evan Ramstad

Samsung Electronics Co. Chairman Lee Kun-hee automatically gets lots of media attention as the head of South Korea’s largest business and because he is the country’s richest person.
He usually doesn’t do much with it though. Mr. Lee hasn’t given any media interviews since the 1990s.

Typically, his media appearances amount to a comment or two as he passes from the baggage claim of an airport to his waiting car.

And in the rare moments he does talk publicly, the substance of his comments can best be described as Delphic.

For instance, when Mr. Lee passed through an airport in Seoul earlier this week, he said: “We have no time to think and should quickly put current undertakings back on track. We should make greater efforts to launch high-quality products globally and make them top-selling brands.”

So when Mr. Lee decided on Thursday to speak out about a debate going on in the South Korean government right now about the well-being of small- and mid-sized companies, his comments generated big headlines.

Mr. Lee responded to a question about an idea being discussed by the Presidential Commission for the Shared Growth of Large and Small Companies to develop a method of profit-sharing. No formal proposal has been made and not even the commission has fully defined the idea.

Even so, Mr. Lee said on Thursday: “I studied economics for a long time as I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, but I have never heard of this anywhere else, nor do I understand the concept, either.”

Mr. Lee said he wasn’t trying to express whether he was for or against the idea, but in expressing that thought he appeared to question the ideology of government leaders. “I just don’t know if the system is from a socialist economy, capitalist or communist economy,” he added.

The issue holds particular importance for Samsung, a group of approximately 60 companies that, in addition to being largest in size, also generates the biggest profits and is frequently criticized by left-wing politicians and interest groups. Samsung Electronics Co., the biggest of all Samsung firms, last year earned a record 16.15 trillion won, or about $14.6 billion, far more than any South Korean company ever has.

On Friday, Chung Un-chan, the immediate past prime minister and chairman of the commission that Mr. Lee criticized, responded to Mr. Lee’s remarks.

“It’s not fair to underestimate the meaning (of profit-sharing) just because he didn’t see the concept in the books that he studied,” Mr. Chung said. “Believing that profit-sharing is designed to steal profits from big businesses and connecting it to ideological issues is misunderstanding the true meaning.”

South Korean news media on Friday afternoon carried reports from anonymous officials in the presidential office that were also critical of Mr. Lee. Officially, the Blue House said nothing, however.

Asked whether Mr. Lee’s comments represented an official position of Samsung, a representative of a Samsung’s global communications office, issued this response:

“Chairman Lee has always emphasized the importance of cooperation and mutual growth among large corporations and medium-sized companies. When asked by reporters about the profit sharing system yesterday, Chairman Lee said he was neither in a position to approve nor disapprove because he did not understand the concept of the system. Chairman Lee said that he did not understand the concept of the profit sharing system. It is therefore inappropriate and unreasonable to interpret his comments as political or to consider them as Samsung’s official position.”

And in response to a question about when Mr. Lee last made a political comment, the representative said:

“Chairman Lee has in the past responded to reporter questions regarding the South Korean economy, IT industry, and the future of Samsung.”

Last September, Mr. Lee attended a meeting of business leaders hosted by President Lee Myung-bak where the topic of big companies helping smaller ones was first discussed.

When he left that meeting, the Samsung chief appeared to signal he was on board with the government’s thinking. “I will take this matter more seriously and do what I can do to make a system and infrastructure for co-prosperity of big and small firms,” Mr. Lee said at that time.

For a country that’s accustomed to Mr. Lee not saying much of anything, his statement on Thursday was a shock. Various news accounts described it as “rare” and “controversial” and “shaking political circles.” Some called it “uncomfortable,” “direct” and “arrogant.”

The last time Mr. Lee said something that caused such a stir was in April 1995, when he complained about South Korean politicians to Korean reporters in Beijing.

“Korea can’t become a ‘first-class’ nation unless regulation and ‘a sense of power’ disappear,” Mr. Lee said at the time. “The nation’s politics is the fourth-class, bureaucratic are the third-class, and business is the second-class.”

Those remarks appeared to challenge a Confucian hierarchical tradition that Koreans are taught, in which intellectuals were celebrated as the highest of four classes and businessmen and merchants as the lowest. ◦

North Korea’s Digital Underground


To smuggle facts into or out of North Korea is to risk imprisonment and even execution. Yet today, aided by a half-dozen stealthy media organizations outside the country, citizen-journalists are using technologies new and old to break the regime’s iron grip on information. Will the truth set a nation free?

By Robert S. Boynton

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the very archetype of a “closed society.” It ranks dead last—196th out of 196 countries—in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press index. Unlike the citizens of, say, Tunisia or Egypt, to name two countries whose populations recently tapped the power of social media to help upend the existing political order, few North Koreans have access to Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. In fact, except for a tiny elite, the DPRK’s 25 million inhabitants are not connected to the Internet. Televisions are set to receive only government stations. International radio signals are routinely jammed, and electricity is unreliable. Freestanding radios are illegal. But every North Korean household and business is outfitted with a government-controlled radio hardwired to a central station. The speaker comes with a volume control, but no off switch. In a new media age awash in universally shared information—an age of planet-wide instant messaging and texted manifestos—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a stubborn holdout, a regime almost totally in control of its national narrative.

Given this isolation, it’s even more remarkable that since 2004, a half-dozen independent media organizations have been launched in Northeast Asia to communicate with North Koreans—to bring news out of the country as well as to get potentially destabilizing information in. These media insurgents have a two-pronged strategy, integrating Cold War methods (Voice of America–like shortwave broadcasts in; samizdat-like info out) and 21st-century hardware: SD chips, thumb drives, CDs, e-books, miniature recording devices, and cell phones. And as with all intelligence-gathering projects, their most valuable assets are human: a network of reporters in North Korea and China who dispatch a stream of reports, whether about the palace intrigue surrounding the choice of Kim Jong Il’s successor, or the price of flour in Wŏnsan.

Run on shoestring budgets by North Korean defectors and South Korean and Japanese activists, these groups walk a line between journalism and advocacy. The two Koreas are still at war, and neither side is above employing censorship, disinformation, and outright propaganda. South Korea, for example, blocks access to North Korean Web sites and broadcasts. Its National Security Law promises lengthy prison sentences for any activity or material that the government judges to be pro–North Korean. Last November, for example, its top court upheld a jail sentence for a woman convicted of possessing instrumental music with composition titles that praised the North. It would be naive to assume that these independent news organizations aren’t influenced by these pressures. But regardless of where they fit on the South Korean ideological spectrum or whether they fully support the hard line toward North Korea of South Korea’s current president, Lee Myung Bak, these new media organizations are helping to create something remarkable: a corps of North Korean citizen-journalists practicing real journalism inside the country.

Their work is illegal and extremely dangerous, and it is producing results. In December 2009, for example, one reporter for the Daily NK, a Web site based in Seoul, embarrassed Pyongyang by intercepting a copy of Kim Jong Il’s annual message, a critical document that sets the ideological tone for the year, before it appeared in North Korea’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. This past December, Open Radio North Korea, a broadcast-news organization, broke the story that a train headed for Pyongyang with gifts from China for Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent, was reportedly sabotaged and derailed, in one of several sporadic and mostly unreported acts of resistance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The sudden availability of so much timely information about what Donald Gregg, the former CIA chief and U.S. ambassador in Seoul, once called the world’s “longest-running intelligence failure” has shaken up the world of Pyongyang watchers. Until recently, experts could say more or less whatever they wanted about North Korea, because nobody could prove them wrong. Conventional wisdom, planted intelligence, and hoary rumors have long been the coin of the realm.

We’ve seen how serious the consequences of this uninformed punditry can be. Assured by North Korea experts in 2002 that the regime was “on the brink” of collapse, president George W. Bush saw no point in negotiating with Kim Jong Il, whom he loathed and wasn’t inclined to deal with in the first place. Not only did the regime not collapse, but in October 2006 it detonated its first nuclear weapon.

The impact of these new groups on journalism has been transformative. Hardly a story about North Korea appears in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post that hasn’t either originated in, or been confirmed by, outlets like the Daily NK or Open Radio North Korea. “The international media gets most of its information on North Korea from them,” says Kim Young Sam, an editor of South Korea’s oldest monthly magazine, the Chosun Monthly, whose sister publication, the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, regularly cites their stories. “Nobody else has the resources, contacts, and expertise.” Even agents from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (formerly the KCIA) sometimes contact the Daily NK and other such outlets to request information.

Not everyone is a fan. This spring, the North Korean government expressed its displeasure: “We have been entrusted with issuing a strict warning in the name of the Republic to those organizations which will be the first targets for severe punishment.” The announcement referred to the news organizations by name, and Pyongyang watchers noted that the phrase We have been entrusted indicates the message comes directly from Kim Jong Il. These were no idle threats. Last spring, two North Korean spies posing as defectors were sent to assassinate Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-level North Korean official ever to defect to South Korea. (Hwang died, peacefully, of a heart attack in October.) And in January 2010, a North Korean factory worker was publicly executed by firing squad for phoning news about the price of rice to someone in South Korea.

Housed on the second floor of a dingy commercial building that anyone can find, on a small, winding street just blocks from Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace, the Daily NK looks more like a call center than a bustling international news organization. Editors sit in 17 gray cubicles encircling the room. Phones ring and are answered with a grunt, hung up, and then redialed—the paper’s routine for communicating with its reporters.

One of the Daily NK’s founders, Park In Ho, spends much of his time recruiting and training reporters on the North Korean border with China. Published in Korean, Chinese, English, and Japanese, the site receives 150,000 visits a month. Like most of the other independent news organizations, it receives funds from the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as other NGOs and private donors. The Daily NK, like its peers, pays its North Korean correspondents small monthly retainers (more for scoops), and additional funds that they can use to bribe their way out of difficult situations.

Park tells me about recruiting one of his reporters. “I met him in China through an NGO. He was a graduate of Kim Il Sung University, so was destined to become a member of the elite. The first thing he asked me was to help him get some dynamite, so that he could blow up Kim Jong Il. He thought that everything in North Korea would change if he killed him.” They spent three months together, talking and reading books about the history of Northeast Asia. “I wanted him to understand the situation in the region, and persuade him not only that terrorism was wrong, but that it wouldn’t change anything.” The man is now a trader inside North Korea, and because his work requires constant travel, he has become one of the Daily NK’s most valuable correspondents.

There have been a number of close calls. In 2008, a security officer caught one of the Daily NK’s reporters as he was crossing the river into China. The reporter had been surreptitiously recording conversations with party officials, and was carrying three memory cards filled with audio files. North Korea had recently launched several test missiles; the reporter and his contacts were discussing the international reaction.

As he had rehearsed with Park, the reporter told the officer that he was only a cog in a larger operation. He was delivering the cards to a relative in China, who then would sell the information to journalists and give him a cut. You can bribe your way around virtually anything in North Korea, it seems, unless it involves either South Korea or religious materials. If the officer discovered that the reporter was working for the Daily NK, he would be sent to a labor camp, or even executed. The reporter suggested that the officer call his relative in China to confirm his story.

Park works according to a strict protocol. He carries several cell phones, each assigned to a different reporter, and they agree to communicate only at certain times on certain days. Any unscheduled call is cause for suspicion. So when his phone rang, Park answered in his best Chinese-Korean accent. The officer assumed he was speaking to the reporter’s relative and demanded $5,000 to release him. After several calls back and forth, the bribe was paid and the reporter freed (though without the memory cards). However, the officer sensed that he was onto a good thing, and tried to enlist Park as a business partner. “He called me every day for a month, like a stalker. He wanted to deal North Korean drugs. He’d send them to me, I’d sell them, and we’d divide the profit,” Park says.

Another of Park’s sources of high-level intelligence is the widow of a party official who she believes was unjustly purged. She is bitter and gives the information she learns from her children—many of whom have government jobs—to Park during trips she takes to China. She lives near the Yellow Sea and sometimes gets a ride across with local fishermen. During one journey, the fishing boat was boarded by a North Korean naval patrol. The only place for her to hide was among the layers of fish and ice stored in the bowels of the ship. She escaped undetected, but with a bad case of frostbite. Park paid for a two-month stay in a Chinese hospital, where she recovered. “Don’t worry about me,” she assured him. “I’m too old to remarry, so my looks don’t matter.”

In the late 1990s, a daring strategy emerged for using video to supplement information collected through interviews in North Korea. To learn about this, I travel to Osaka, Japan, to meet Ishimaru Jiro, 48, a diminutive, serious man with a neatly trimmed goatee, who works for Asia Press International, a consortium of freelance journalists famous for its coverage of war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East. During the past 12 years, its reporters in North Korea have shot some of the most dramatic footage ever to emerge from the country.

Ishimaru began making trips to the China–North Korea border in the ’90s, interviewing refugees, shooting video, and writing. Twice, he crossed into North Korea legally, and another time he used a forged Chinese passport. One day in 1998, Ahn Chul, one of the young men who moved back and forth over the border, made an extraordinary proposal: “Why are you putting yourself in such danger by shooting video here?” he asked. “Give me a camera, and I’ll shoot video inside North Korea.”

Ishimaru gave him some rudimentary training in video photography and a camera hidden in a shopping bag. They set a date to meet three months later. The footage Ahn brought out was shocking: filthy, barefoot children scavenging for food, picking kernels of corn from cow manure. Glassy-eyed, the children told the interviewer that their parents had died and they were homeless and alone. The footage was beamed around the world.

The experiment was so successful that Ishimaru started training other aspiring reporters, using crowded Chinese markets to teach them how to film secretly. Now Ishimaru meets in China with his North Korea–based reporters every few months to pick up and help edit their tapes.

How did a country so closed become porous enough to support such news-gathering by watchers in the South? The answer goes back to the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s, which deprived North Korea of the Eastern Bloc subsidies it had long relied on to sustain its people. In the mid-1990s, a series of floods obliterated several harvests and ushered in a famine that ultimately killed an estimated 1 million North Koreans, or nearly 5 percent of the population. The government food-distribution system collapsed, and people who had relied on it for 50 years didn’t know what to do. Many starved. Others, despite great peril, crossed into China in search of food. The number of defectors who traveled through China to South Korea—previously never more than a few each year—increased tenfold between 1998 and 2002.

Once these North Korean defectors made it across the Yalu or Tumen River, they were startled to discover that even the poorest Chinese had higher living standards than they did. Food was abundant. If anything, the Chinese were growing wealthier.

The famine encouraged the spread of open-air markets throughout North Korea. They had begun appearing after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994. People lucky enough to farm small plots of land sold their extra produce. Riots broke out when the police tried to shut the markets down, so the government decided to look the other way. As the markets spread, they soon became places where one could buy not only rice, but also bootlegged South Korean soap operas and used electronics.

The spread of such trading gave Ishimaru another idea. Could market forces be used not just to get information out but to smuggle footage in? He and his colleagues started with a video about the Kim Il Sung era. Its ideological content was subtle: by praising the decades when life was good and food was plentiful, it was implicitly criticizing the current Kim Jong Il era, in which neither is the case. The video was edited in Japan and sent to China, where a few hundred copies were burned. Traders on the border were eager to get free merchandise, and within days the discs were being bought and sold in markets throughout the country.

Across the border, as the Chinese got richer, they were trading in their Walkmans and cheap computers for iPods and computers with larger hard drives and DVD burners. And what do a billion Chinese do with their old stuff? Sell it to their poor neighbors. (A 2009 survey found that 58 percent of North Koreans had regular access to a cassette recorder with radio, and 21 percent watched videos on video-compact-disc players.) The confluence of these developments created a remarkable journalistic opening: just as defectors in unprecedented numbers were bringing more information out of North Korea, the spread of markets and secondhand technology was creating a conduit for getting more information in. As the North Korea experts Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland report in a recent study based on their surveys of refugees, “Not only is foreign media becoming more widely available, inhibitions on its consumption are declining as well.”

The North Korean government has always been of two minds when it comes to technology. Despite its guiding philosophy of “self-reliance” (juche), it has relied on neighbors to enable it to enter the information age. Its official YouTube videos, Twitter feed, and Facebook accounts are registered in China. Until the late 1990s, all international phone calls were routed through Beijing or Moscow. And what few connections to the Internet the country does have come via a cross-border link to China’s Unicom.

No more than a few thousand North Korean researchers and high officials have access to the Internet. Most North Korean citizens must settle instead for the Kwangmyong (“Bright Star”) intranet portal, which provides access to censored news and official documents and has a rudimentary e-mail service. Launched in 2000, Kwangmyong is based on a Japanese version of Microsoft Windows. It can be accessed at universities and in government offices, as well as in the hundred or so cyber cafés where young people in the country’s largest cities go to play games and watch videos.

Owning computers is legal, although they must be registered with the local authorities. Most computers, which generally run on pirated Microsoft software, come from China. The country’s only computer-manufacturing company, Morning Panda, produces barely 10,000 a year. If computers are rare, printers are even more so. They are closely monitored because of their potential for spreading anti-regime documents. Similarly, citizens are forbidden to own fax machines, which can be found only in national post offices and in business offices. Sending a fax requires the approval of a high-level employer. Cell phones, both legal and illegal, have become a fact of life only during the past five years.

Radio is the chief technology through which the regime communicates with its citizens and is, for a variety of reasons that include patterns of historical use, the technology of choice for the exile-media outlets. A few target specific audiences. North Korea Reform Radio, founded in 2007, directs its free-market message at government bureaucrats (it recently aired a 44-episode series on China’s economic liberalization); North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, or NKIS, a hybrid think tank and news organization, concentrates on the intelligentsia (“The bottom of the population are too ignorant and brainwashed, and the elites are too hardline,” says its founder, Kim Heung Kwang).

Much of the programming has a distinct social-media character. Free North Korea Radio’s Voices of the People features man-on-the-street interviews with North Koreans, their voices digitally distorted before being broadcast back into their country. NK Reform Radio interviews defectors now living in South Korea. Some are unable to fit into South Korean society, and their ambivalence about their new home comes through in their comments—itself evidence of their newfound freedom of speech.

The subject that most interests North Koreans is the country’s ruling dynasty: founder Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, and his presumed heir, Kim Jong Un. Most of their subjects know little more than the idealized history of the Kims churned out by the state’s propaganda mill. They are shocked to learn that Kim Jong Il was born in Russia, and not on the mythic Mount Paektu; Koreans are quite socially conservative and are aghast that he has fathered several children with women other than his wives.

Editors have wasted no time creating a suite of Kim-centric programs. Open Radio North Korea broadcasts an original serial drama called 2012, whose title refers to the much-anticipated 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. It starts with the premise that Kim Jong Il has been incapacitated by a second stroke, and imagines what North Korea might be like in the near future. Radio Free Chosun has dramatized several memoirs about the ruling family, including one by Kim Jong Il’s chef. And even NK Reform Radio is getting in on the action with an original drama called What Did Kim Jong Il Eat During the Famine?

The bet is that a mix of entertainment and news is more compelling than broadcasts that focus on famine or human-rights abuses (things most North Koreans are well aware of). The evidence suggests that such programs work. In their surveys of North Korean refugees, Haggard and Noland found a clear correlation between the “consumption of foreign media” and “more negative assessments of the regime and its intentions.” Kim Seong Min, the founder of Free North Korea Radio, credits his own political awakening to shortwave-radio programs. As a North Korean propaganda officer, he sometimes listened to the illegal radios he confiscated. One night he heard a South Korean program that contradicted a number of the myths surrounding the Kim family. After a little research, he discovered that the broadcasts were true. Was everything he’d been taught a lie, he wondered? It wasn’t long before he defected.

Without a doubt, North Korea Intellectual Solidarity is the organization that has thought most about the role of technology. Its reporters are equipped with South Korean, rather than Chinese, cell phones, because NKIS technicians believe their encoded protocol is more difficult for North Korean intelligence to track. Not content to buy voice and video recorders off the shelf, NKIS uses customized devices, whose battery life and recording times are reputedly superior. My request to see one is (pleasantly) denied.

The group’s technical emphasis comes from its founder, Kim Heung Kwang. Kim was a professor of computer science at Hamhung University of Technology, a branch of the North Korean military. He looks a decade older than his 51 years, and has the haggard mien of someone who has fallen afoul of the authorities. In North Korea, he was training students for careers as engineers or soldiers. The best were recruited by the army’s elite hacker units, which reportedly disrupted South Korean and U.S. government Web sites in 2009. Two of his former students defected recently, and now work with him at NKIS.

Kim’s facility with technology got him into trouble in the North. “I had several e-books, which I got from China. The national security force arrested me for possessing them,” he tells me. The books were pretty innocuous fare, mostly motivational titles like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. “These weren’t anti-regime books, so why was this a crime?” he asks bitterly. “I saw that there wasn’t any hope for the North Korean system. I started to dream of going somewhere where I had the freedom to read what I wanted.” Kim defected in 2003 and arrived in South Korea a year later.

One of the first things Kim’s team created was an e-book called Window to the Global Village. A 204-page primer about South Korea and the rest of the world, it is loaded with embedded video, music, photos, and voice files. The three-gigabyte thumb drive had extra space, so he added a math program for children, a fortune-telling program for adults, games, and a bunch of computer tools.

Kim reaches into his pocket and shows me one of his specially programmed thumb drives. It will read “empty” when it is plugged in to a computer, just in case it falls into the hands of a border guard. When the savvy (or unsuspecting) user double-clicks on the logo, the program launches, and installs a file called “Welcome World” on his computer. (Some funders object to these surreptitious distribution techniques, fearing they might endanger innocent people.) Then there is the self-destruct option. “We set it to erase itself after a month, or after a certain number of downloads,” Kim explains, holding up one of the thumb drives. “Even if you are caught reading the e-book, the national security police won’t be able to trace it. After all, you can say that when you got it, you thought it was empty!”

Given the grip that the North Korean regime retains on information, the mission of these subversive organizations can seem quixotic—an act of faith as much as it is journalism. Of all the narrowcasters tenaciously targeting North Korea, the narrowest is Shiokaze (“sea breeze,” in Japanese), a station created by the Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea, or COMJAN. In the late 1970s, North Korea began randomly abducting Japanese citizens from beaches and parks, and holding them captive in Pyongyang for the next quarter century. Their families assumed they had either eloped or died. Precisely why they were abducted has never been clear, although it most likely has to do with training spies. Even the exact number of abductees isn’t known. At a 2002 summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Kim Jong Il confessed to having taken 13 Japanese, five of whom were still alive (and were soon returned to Japan). The Japanese government insists that at least 17 were kidnapped, and refuses to believe that the others have died. From the third floor of a less-than-spiffy apartment building near Tokyo’s Iidabashi railway station, COMJAN advocates on behalf of abductees not officially recognized by the Japanese government, and hopes to reach them with its radio broadcasts.

On the day I visit, Araki Kazuhiro, a professor of Korean studies and COMJAN’s chairman, is sitting in the tiny, makeshift plywood radio booth, reading news about recent nuclear-arms negotiations for one of Shiokaze’s twice-daily shortwave broadcasts. After he finishes, we sit at a conference table and have some tea. Araki says he believes that more than 400 Japanese have been abducted, and that the kidnappings continue even today. As with many of the other shortwave broadcasts, North Korea often jams Shiokaze’s signal. Shiokaze regularly switches frequencies, but the North quickly locates the new one, and jams it.

While the Daily NK and other outlets occasionally interact with their listeners, Shiokaze operates in a virtual void. Other than the five Japanese released in 2002, no abductee has ever been heard from. I reluctantly broach the subject: Does Araki have any evidence that anyone in North Korea—abductee or not—has ever heard the broadcast?

Araki and his producer consult with each other. “Well, we once heard about a high-school student who was able to pick up the program in Pyongyang, but we’re not sure about that,” he says. After more tea, Araki excuses himself and returns to the booth. It is almost noon, and he needs to finish one more Korean-language segment before the afternoon program is beamed across the sea and into North Korea. ◦

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ferrum Tower, a foodie mecca


Four premium restaurants drawing gourmands, more outlets coming

When Ferrum Tower opened last summer it looked every inch the slick office building. Slicing the firmament, this Dongkuk Steel-owned 28-story high skyscraper shouted corporate cool.

Located flush up against shopping-and-tourist hotspot Myeongdong, the new addition soon started attracting rave reviews from bloggers.

No, it wasn’t because of its stunning architectural prowess or because it first opened last summer. It was because a set of restaurants started setting up shop in November.

Paul Bassett, an upscale coffee shop, and the venerable Hanilkwan were among the first to open. Three authentic Japanese restaurants ― Anzu, Manten-Boshi and Yamaya ― soon followed in December. Then, in February, the famed Swiss chocolatier Teuscher opened its first South Korean outlet.

Word spread. Foodies came. They tasted. They conquered.

Then again, when there are only six venues to hit, it isn’t so hard to get around.

“Plans are to have more restaurants open on the second basement floor,” Ferrum Infra team head Ham Eun-seong said over the phone. “We are looking into bringing in stores that specialize in noodle dishes.”

Ham said that noodles were selected as a theme because of their mass appeal and that plans are to have the new shops open within this year.

At this point, it may be too early to call Ferrum Tower a food mecca. However, most of the establishments serve up good fare.

Here is a look at what the place has to offer.


Seoul has its fair share of tonkatsu shops, but the fried breaded pork cutlet at Anzu is crisp and feathery on the outside, tender and succulent on the inside.

Thick and round, rather than thin and flat, Anzu’s tonkatsu is about maximizing flavor and density per bite.

According to manager Cho Sung-ha and educational head Park Sung-yoon, the pork is brought in fresh and wet-aged for a week.

Anzu’s shrimp katsu ― translucent pink and plump ― is equally delicious.

Shiso cream salad sauce spices up the standard bed of finely shredded cabbage. Dessert in the form of tofu made from cream and ground apricot stones glides down the throat with silken, nutty ease.

Anzu is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Katsu-based set courses cost 14,500 won ($13) to 32,000 won. For more information call (02) 6353-8948.


Hailing from Japan, Manten-Boshi specializes in juicy hamburg steaks doused in a velvety demi-glace sauce. The key is in the sauce, which takes a week to make.

Yet, the best part about this restaurant is the fact that it makes excellent puddings. Quivering, soft and covered in golden, clear caramel sauce, each spoonful of custard imparts a sweet moment of bliss.

Manten-Boshi is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Hamburg steak dishes cost 15,000 won to 21,000 won. For more information call (02) 6353-8943.


Boasting nearly 80 years of history, this Swiss chocolatier creates mouthwatering morsels so tempting, so beautiful, they are hard to resist, none more so than Teuscher’s famed Champagne truffles crafted with Dom Perignon.

“People who know about Teuscher only order the Champagne truffles,” said Teuscher-Seoul CEO Shi Sung-jin.

Indeed, the upscale truffle is an ideal marriage of fragrant aromas and rich creamy textures. The kick at the end, more an elegant tap than a kick, is a pleasant reminder of its Champagne cream center.

Teuscher is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and is closed Sundays. Chocolates cost 240 won per gram. Solid chocolates cost 200 won per gram. For more information call (02) 755-5004.


The historic hansik restaurant, which first opened in 1939, saddened many a loyal patron when it moved from its original Jongno spot to Sinsa-dong in 2008. In November, Hanilkwan opened a third outlet in Ferrum Tower, a location strikingly close to its old spot.

“Lots of customers missed us so we chose to open here,” said advisor Kim Dong-wol.

The menu is a bit more simplified than the main store in Sinsa-dong and there is a new walk-through area where customers in a rush can get food to-go.

“We offer complementary traditional Korean tea while you wait for your order,” said Kim.

Hanilkwan is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Popular half-course meals cost 11,000 won to 14,000 won. Korean donburi to-go costs 8,000 won to 9,000 won. For more information call (02) 1577-9963.


Yamaya specializes in motsunabe. Essentially a soup made from beef offal, motsunabe is considered a traditional dish of Fukuoka, Japan.

In a tatami-clad space that resembles an izakaya, customers can dip into steaming hot pots of authentic soup made from one out of three broths ― soy sauce, miso or ponzu sauce.

Yamaya is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Motsunabe per person costs 13,900 won. Lunch sets cost 13,000 won. For more information call (02) 6353-8946.

Paul Bassett

World Barista Championship 2003 winner Paul Bassett opened his first namesake cafe in Ginza, Tokyo, in 2005, serving up perfectly roasted brews to a nation responsible for the development of hand-drip coffee.

Here, at Bassett’s second South Korean outlet, espresso aficionados can tip back strong, full-bodied macchiatos or sip at intense yet creamy cappuccinos.

Paul Bassett is open from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, till 6 p.m. Sundays. Coffee-based drinks cost 3,500 won to 5,000 won. For more information call (02) 6353-8991.

Ferrum Tower

To get there, go to Euljiro 1-ga Subway Station Line 2, Exit 3. Ferrum Tower will be to your right. Teuscher and Paul Bassett are located on the first floor. Restaurants are on the first basement floor. ◦

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

South Korea's suicide rate is the highest in OECD


Suicidal South Koreans increasingly chose Han River bridges instead of subway stations for their fatal leaps after platform screen doors were installed at many stations, police said on Tuesday.

The number of people who jumped off river bridges in Seoul increased 30 per cent to 108 last year, the National Police Agency said in a report submitted to a ruling party lawmaker, Yoon Seok Yong. Twenty-eight of the 108 died while 80 others survived.

In contrast, the number of people who attempted suicide by throwing themselves in front of subway trains fell drastically to 29 last year from 77 in 2009, according to the report.

Most of the incidents happened at stations without screen doors, indicating such barriers were effective in preventing suicides.

'Just as screen doors were established at subway stations for the safety of citizens, we need to prepare various measures to prevent impulsive suicides on Han River bridges,' Mr Yoon was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.

South Korea's suicide rate is the highest among member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with 15,413 taking their own lives in 2009.
(See: http://www.sourceoecd.org/pdf/societyataglance2009/812009011e-08-04.pdf) ◦

Concern over Korea’s fast aging society


Nearly two out of five Koreans are expected to be aged 65 or older in 2050, a report showed Monday, raising concerns that the nation’s fast-aging population could raise the financial burden for younger people in taking care of senior citizens.

According to the report by Statistics Korea, the ratio of those aged 65 or older to the nation’s total population will likely grow to 38.2 percent in 2050. The ratio is much higher than last year’s 11 percent and 3.8 percent in 1980.

The spike in the ratio of senior citizens is attributable to rising life expectancy and falling birthrates, coupled with enhanced medical technology that helps cure many previously untreatable diseases.

Koreans’ average life expectancy has been on the rise over the past few decades.

The report showed that life expectancy for Koreans stood at 80.5 years in 2009, compared with 65.7 just 31 year ago.

As the ratio of senior citizens is expected to sharply increase, the report expressed concerns that the financial burden that working-age people have to shoulder in taking care of them will also likely spike.

According to the report, every 100 working-age people should take care of 72 senior citizens in 2050, sharply up from the 15 older people that they needed to support last year.

Among the employed in the country, those who are 55 or older accounted for 15.2 percent of the total in 2000 and 19.4 percent in 2009.

The percentage is expected to surpass 20 percent two years later.

The latest forecast comes as Korea is fast becoming an aged society, in which more than 14 percent of the population is 65 or older.

Korea became an aging society in 2000, when the ratio exceeded 7 percent.

The average of the country’s population reached 29.5 in 1990 and rose to 33.1 in 2000 and to 38 last year. It is expected to increase to 40.4 in 2015, exceeding 40 for the first time, and reach 50.4 in 2040.

Challenges posed by an aging population have been drawing keen attention here as of late, as fears rise that the demographic shift could dent overall productivity and growth potential down the road due to a declining workforce and an increase in welfare and medical costs sapping the country’s budget.

The report showed that 30.5 percent of the nation’s total health care expenditures were used to treat senior citizens in 2009, the first time the ratio has exceeded the 30 percent barrier.

In 1999, it stood at a mere 17 percent.

According to the 2010 population census that was conducted last year, the country’s population increased to 48.21 million, up 2 percent from 2005, the previous census, and the number of households rose 9.1 percent to 17.33 million over the same period.

The portion of single-person households was 9 percent in 1990, 20 percent in 2005 and 23.3 percent last year. ◦

Thursday, March 03, 2011

South Korean President Lee asks churches to play greater roles in promoting social unity


President Lee Myung-bak said Thursday that he hopes Christian churches will play greater roles in bridging social divisions and promoting national unity in South Korea.

His remark came as local churches have protested the government's push for a bill calling for tax benefits to holders of Islamic bonds, or "sukuk," in an effort to encourage local companies to issue such debts and lure more Middle Eastern oil dollars.

Christian groups say it is unfair to give tax benefits to a certain religion.

On Thursday, Lee made no mention of the issue during an address to an annual gathering of South Korean church leaders, known as "Korea National Prayer Breakfast," held at COEX in southern Seoul, only calling for churches to help promote social unity.

"I believe it is essential for us to understand and respect others in order to get our society to unite and mature," Lee said at the meeting.

Churches in South Korea have "always taken the lead in changing society in a positive way," Lee said, expressing hope that they "practice sharing more actively and take the lead in taking care of those in the shady parts of our society."

Lee also said the world economy is facing uncertainties amid political unrest in the Middle East, but he believes South Korea can overcome difficulties if the country pulls together in meeting those challenges.

Lee also wished North Korean people blessings and said he will try to be a "president who listens to the people in a more humble manner and devotes himself to the country." (Yonhap)