Monday, October 28, 2013

Parallel Worlds: North and South Korea

The 38th parallel, separating north and south, is Korea’s most important dividing line. But it is only one of many, says Simon Cox

ON A RESTLESS night in April 1970, Lee Jae-geun, one of 27 South Korean fishermen aboard a trawler in the Yellow Sea, awoke from a nightmare. He had dreamt that Korea was struck by three titanic waves, each stronger than the last. The final wave swept aside mountains, deluged the country and left the land divided. It was, he thought, a bad omen.

And so it proved. A few nights later a North Korean patrol intercepted his trawler about 50 miles south of the Northern Limit Line, a disputed maritime border between the two Koreas. Armed patrolmen boarded the trawler and abducted its crew. Most of them were repatriated later that year, but the North Koreans had grander designs for Mr Lee, hoping to train him as a spy. It was three decades before he escaped.

The division between north and south remains Korea’s enduring tragedy. It was imposed in 1945 by the Allied powers that liberated the country from 35 years of cruel Japanese rule. In 1950 it was almost erased by a wave of North Korean troops that swept down the peninsula under the command of Kim Il Sung, a Soviet-backed ruler who outlasted the Soviet Union itself. Another wave of troops, mostly American but fighting under the United Nations banner, then reversed the North Korean tide. Eventually the UN forces succumbed to a third wave of Chinese troops which drove them back to the 38th parallel, a latitudinal reference line that still divides the two Koreas. Everybody ended up roughly where they had started.

On land the dividing line is painstakingly demarcated and heavily fortified. But at sea the border is both physically and legally indistinct, dogged by disputes, incursions and abductions. The South Korean government knows of over 500 of its citizens abducted since 1955 who are still missing.
Mr Lee is no longer one of them, but the country to which he escaped is not the one he left behind decades ago. Its economy, politics and culture have all changed beyond recognition. As a teenager Mr Lee had served as an errand boy for Seoul’s police and knew every nook and cranny of the city.

But in the vast metropolis he returned to 30 years later, he “couldn’t tell left from right”, he says.
When he was abducted, South Korea’s income per person was about $2,000 a year (at purchasing-power parity), roughly equal to North Korea’s at the time. As a fisherman, Mr Lee counted as comfortably middle-class. By the time he returned in 2000, South Korea’s income per person had grown almost tenfold (see chart). In 2010 the country became one of only 15 in the world with a GDP of over $1 trillion.

Two years after Mr Lee’s capture, Hyundai began work on a shipyard in Ulsan, Mr Lee’s southern home town. The yard is now the biggest in the world. Its red Goliath cranes hoist walls of steel measuring 20m by 40m in nine dry docks, making vast container ships and sophisticated drilling vessels for customers from 48 countries. Internationally competitive industries like these have helped make South Korea the world’s seventh-biggest exporter of goods.

And not only goods. Instead of the waves that haunted Mr Lee’s dreams, a Korean wave of films, music and soap operas has inundated Asia and begun to spread beyond. South Korea, so long subject to foreign influence, is now influencing others. One of its diplomats heads the United Nations. Lady Gaga wears its fashions. The South Korean rapper Psy created the most-watched YouTube clip ever. Even in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, South Korean music and drama circulates widely, if furtively, on memory sticks and DVDs. Youngsters are wearing their hair styled like their Southern cousins.

Back in 1970 South Korea was ruled by Park Chung-hee, whose daughter, Park Geun-hye, now holds the presidency. But in the intervening years the polity she heads has travelled almost as far as the economy. Her father came to power in a coup in 1961, then in 1972 dissolved the National Assembly and introduced a newly authoritarian constitution. His daughter, by contrast, won the presidency last December in a free and fair election, South Korea’s sixth since 1987. She racked up the highest share of the vote since her father’s victory in 1971.
Poignant reminder
If South Koreans want to remind themselves of the progress they have enjoyed, they need only look north, where men on average measure up to 8cm less and die 12 years sooner. North Korea’s Kim dynasty is now in its third generation, with power passing in 2011 to Kim Jong Un, who may not yet be 30 (no one is quite sure) but models his gestures and embraces on those of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The country’s output of cereals, which collapsed in the mid-1990s, has only just regained the level it reached in 1982. A visiting NGO hoping to improve yields on a collective farm had to dust off agricultural techniques that had not been used in the south for decades. To help its electrical equipment cope with the north’s wild swings in current, it had to order a voltage stabiliser not seen in the south since the 1980s.

In escaping to the south, Mr Lee achieved a personal reunification that still eludes his country as a whole. But he did not find it easy. In the north he had been a mechanic, making ships’ engines, but when he looked for similar work in the south he found that it was now done by machines. Still, his predicament is shared by many older South Koreans who have not managed to keep up with a now much more sophisticated economy.

South Korea does not make best use of these older workers, who constitute a growing proportion of the country’s population. It forces many of them to retire prematurely instead of retraining and re-educating them. By contrast, it overeducates its young, who toil away in expensive crammers and devote years to preparing for the university entrance exam. Families compete with each other in an educational arms race that is almost as ruinous as the military competition with the north. Extra qualifications are a ticket to the best jobs, and the best jobs are still concentrated in the government, the banks and the chaebol (the big family-owned conglomerates).

South Korea’s working-age generation faces a triple burden. It must take care of older people, who are growing in number, younger people, who are expensive to educate, and perhaps eventually North Koreans, who will have to be integrated into the economy if the two Koreas are ever reunified. Daunted by these burdens, many South Korean women are delaying childbirth and having fewer children. The country’s fertility rate has fallen further and faster than in almost any other country. Its population, which surpassed 50m last year, is projected to fall below that number again by 2045.
Young South Koreans feel little connection with those on the other side

Many young South Koreans are trying to forget their ties to the north. Their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were preoccupied with the communist enemy, their fear and loathing kept alive by heavy propaganda during the years of dictatorship. The generation born in the 1960s, known as the 386 generation in homage to the Intel 386 microchip, was equally focused on the north, arguing that anti-communist fervour was making reconciliation and reunification impossible. Today’s southern youngsters, by contrast, feel little connection with the people on the other side of the 38th parallel. They are secretly relieved that for now reunification seems only a distant possibility. They do not burn with hatred for the north, nor do they romanticise it, as some older leftists used to do. They simply want to ignore it. But the north does not allow itself to be ignored. ◦

Monday, October 14, 2013

Google Jousts With Wired South Korea Over Quirky Internet Rules

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea is one of the world’s most digitally advanced countries. It has ubiquitous broadband, running at speeds that many Americans can only envy. Its Internet is also one of the most quirky in the world.
A curfew restricts school-age children from playing online games at night; adults wanting to do so need to provide their resident registration numbers to prove that they are of age.
Until last year, commenters on the Web were legally required to use their real names. A simple Web search in Korean can be a fruitless experience, because the operators of many sites, including some government ministries, bar search engines from indexing their pages.
Travelers who want to go from Gimpo International Airport to the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul cannot rely on Google Maps. Google Maps can provide directions only for public transport, not for driving, to any place in Korea. Anyone crazy enough to try the journey on bicycle or on foot, directions for which Google Maps provides elsewhere, will be similarly stymied.
The highly regulated Internet comes as a surprise to many people, Koreans included, because South Korea is a strong democracy with a vibrant economy seemingly ready for the digital information age.
South Koreans were early adopters of Internet games and smartphones. It has world-beating electronics companies like Samsung and LG. But here the Internet is just different.
The Korean government has its reasons, most of them well-intentioned. The curfew, for example, was put in place to deal with concerns over game addiction among teenagers.
South Korean security restrictions that were put in place after the Korean War limit Google’s maps, the company says. The export of map data is barred, ostensibly to prevent it from falling into the hands of South Korea’s foe to the north, across the world’s most heavily fortified border. Google and other foreign Internet companies say the rule also prevents them from providing online mapping services, like navigation, that travelers have come to rely on in much of the rest of the world.
The Korea Communications Standards Commission, a regulatory panel, blocks material on the Web that it deems objectionable. This can include pornography, the production of which is technically illegal in South Korea.
“It’s ironic, in a country that is widely recognized for its advanced digital infrastructure, that there are so many restrictions on the Internet in Korea,” said Kim Keechang, a law professor at Korea University who is writing a book on Internet regulation in South Korea.
Foreign Internet companies say the country’s rules prevent them from competing against domestic rivals because they cannot provide the same services they do elsewhere. South Korea is one of the few major markets where Google is not the leading search engine. A South Korean rival, Naver, has the most users.
But domestic criticism of the Korean approach to Internet regulation is growing. Civil liberties advocates successfully challenged the rule requiring users of Internet discussion groups to provide their real names, verified by a national identity registration system. A court last year struck down the measure, which was introduced in 2007 to try to curb online bullying after a rash of suicides.
Now the government of President Park Geun-hye is moving to ease some of the Internet regulations.
Ms. Park wants to encourage creativity in the South Korean high-technology industry, which is very good at developing hardware like smartphones and television sets but not as good at exporting software and services. Critics say the different rules that South Korean companies have to play by limit their ability to think in a worldly fashion.
In September, the government promised to ease the restrictions on online mapping services. The National Geographic Information Institute, part of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, said it would make an official English-language digital map available to Internet companies, beginning this month for companies based in South Korea. The ministry said the policy would help foreign Internet companies and to clear up uncertainties over Korean place names.
The move comes amid a new flare-up in a longstanding dispute over a group of islets between South Korea and Japan known variously as the Dokdo in Korea, the Takeshima in Japan and the Liancourt Rocks in some other places. (The islands are either in the Sea of Japan or the East Sea, another naming dispute.)
For Google and other foreign companies, there is a hitch. They will be permitted to use the map as of next year, on a case-by-case basis. Now, Google adapts its English-language maps of South Korea from the government’s Korean-language maps. Google is permitted to provide directions using public transit systems like the Seoul subway, because train and bus routes and schedules are available through public records.
But Google says other map enhancements, like driving directions, traffic information,and indoor floor plans of airports, require the company to process the data at its servers outside South Korea. This would constitute an export of the map data, which has been forbidden until now.
Google says the policy change announced by the Ministry of Land does not go far enough. That is because the scale of the new official, English-language map is limited to 1:25,000, which Google says is insufficient to provide details that its Maps users take for granted elsewhere.
“Maps at the lower resolution don’t have accurate enough information to guide people and cars through intersections, sidewalks, bike lanes, pedestrian overpasses and many points of interest,” the company said in a statement.
Google maintains that the rules are unfair because domestic Internet companies like Naver are able to provide online navigation and other mapping services, even to users outside the country. That is because Naver’s servers are housed in South Korea. For many foreign visitors, though, Naver’s maps are of limited use: they are only in Korean.
“We just think any services should be carried out within the framework of the law,” Naver said. “The same laws should apply to all providers of Web map services, domestic or foreign.”


Perfecting the Face-Lift, Gangnam Style

Kylie Vu holds up her iPhone to display a photo of her favorite South Korean actress. “I want a chin like hers,” she tells a beauty consultant at the BK Plastic Surgery clinic in Seoul. Vu, 30, budgeted $10,000 for a chin implant and face-lift and traveled more than 1,600 miles from Vietnam, where she manages five kindergartens.

The number of tourists visiting South Korea for cosmetic surgery has increased more than fivefold since 2009, to 15,428 last year, according to the country’s health ministry. Like Vu, many make a beeline for the so-called beauty belt—hundreds of clinics clustered around subway stations in Gangnam, the upscale Seoul neighborhood made famous by Korean pop singer Psy, whose Gangnam Style music video has garnered more than 1.78 billion views on YouTube.

“I’ve had patients from China and Japan since the late 1990s,” says Kim Byung Gun, whose BK Plastic Surgery employs six surgeons, along with 30 interpreters speaking Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, English, and other languages. “It’s grown more rapidly since, because of the staggering demand for plastic surgery among Koreans.” In a 2011 poll carried out by the Seoul city government, 32 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to go under the knife to improve their looks, up from 21.5 percent in 2009. A total of 649,938 cosmetic procedures were performed in South Korea in 2011, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, more than 13 procedures for every 1,000 people—the highest rate of any country in the world.

South Korea’s medical tourism industry logged revenue of 487 billion won ($453 million) in 2012, according to estimates from the Korea Tourism Organization. That’s triple the amount in 2009. The government promotes the industry abroad and has set a target of adding about 20,000 jobs over the next four years.

South Korean clinics provide an array of special services for visitors, such as hotel accommodations, airport pickups, and multilingual websites, e-mail, and video consultations. Plastic surgery trips cost an average of $14,000, including air fare and accommodations, according to Lee Joon, marketing director at Seoul TouchUp, a travel agency that books all-inclusive packages.

Growing interest in Korean pop culture is a major factor drawing medical tourists from Asia, even though surgeries often cost more than they do at home, says Kim of BK Plastic Surgery. Koreans typically request operations to Westernize their appearance; patients from other Asian countries want the features of Korean celebrities.

Gangnam, the destination for more than 20 percent of all medical tourists to South Korea, opened a visitor center in July to help visitors choose accredited hospitals. To improve safety and safeguard the industry’s reputation, the government has begun cracking down on hospitals that work with unregistered tourism agencies. The state-run Human Resources Development Service of Korea offers a qualification exam for medical tour operators. (Risks of traveling too soon after surgery include pulmonary embolisms and blood clots, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.)

As she prepared for a makeover modeled on Kim Tae Hee, the South Korean actress who plays the lead in the popular TV drama Love Story in Harvard, Vu was already plotting a return trip to Seoul.

“South Korea’s plastic surgery is known to be the best in the world,” says the Vietnamese visitor, clutching an Herm├Ęs handbag. “I’ll probably be back in Korea in six months to get another face-lift.” ◦