Lee, Moscow and Pyongyang

Yonhap reports that President Lee Myung-bak today announced several key agreements with his Russian counterparts during talks in Moscow, including the construction of a natural gas pipeline  and the linking of railroads through the North.

The agreements highlight the vast differences in handling inter-Korean issues between Lee and his two liberal predecessor, who favored a more ideological policy of engagement with Pyongyang that contrasts sharply with Lee’s more comercially oriented approach.

Lee said his summit agreements with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to build a South Korea-North Korea-Russian natural gas pipeline and a South Korea-only port near the North Korean-Russian border, as well as linking the inter-Korean railway to the trans-Siberian railway (TSR) will help South Korea drastically reduce its international logistics costs.

One problem, however, is that Lee flatly rejected the earlier inter-Korean agreements signed with Kim Jong-il, which came as a slap in the face to Pyongyang. So now we’ve got a pragmatic approach by Lee, but a leadership in Pyongyang that is ideologically opposed to him and his administration.

Still, Lee described the agreements as too profitable for the North to pass up, which struck me as ironic considering he’s consistently rejected the previous agreements signed by former presidents Roh and Kim with the North’s leadership.”The economic benefits for North Korea could be far bigger than its previous cooperation projects with South Korea in Kaesong and at Mount Geumgang.”

That last statement is striking, as it reveals Lee’s own approach to engagement after having squashed the liberal’s Sunshine Policy, going so far as to try and remove the term itself from school textbooks. After six months of dealing with one political crisis after another, and amid worsening relations with Pyongyang, Lee seems to be maneuvering to lay the groundwork for a radically new relationship.

Please, oh please don’t let McCain win

Stepping away from Korea for a second to offer up a plea/prayer/hope (call it what you will) that McCain loses this November. Speaking with a young Korean American colleague who hails from the deep south (not Korea, but the US) the other day, I was a little surprised to learn that she is leaning towards McCain this election. She cited Obama’s “less than reassuring” health plan as one of her main reasons.

Now, not to sound callous, but I could give a toss about domestic issues. Those will get worked out, some way or another, by congress or local governments. My feeling is that what is needed now, more than anything else, is someone to guide the (misguided) US back into the real World. Not some terrorist swamp that needs to be bombed back into shape, but a tech savvy (which means knowing how to use a computer), competitive, and eager world filled with potential and a growing — and as yet untapped — desire for some kind of integration.

An editorial by Roger Cohen in the IHT yesterday spoke of American exceptionalism, the kind Palin loads into the twin-barrels of her shotgun politics, or the kind Obama (hopefully) will offer. I’d add that one of America’s (and Americans’) most exceptional qualities is the ability to integrate, and that is what I expect from an Obama presidency.

A McCain victory will be a disaster for the world, a continuation and worsening of the state of affairs that the Bush administration has helped bequeth to the planet. And for those who do put priority on domestic affairs, then take a look at another editorial in the IHT by Garrison Keillor about McCain’s involvement in Wall Street affairs. It ain’t FOX News, but then what is.

Editorial attacks media for promoting suicide

An editorial in yesterday’s Korean language JoonAng attacked local media coverage following the suicide of South Korean actor Ahn Jae-hwan, who was found dead in his car on Sept. 8 after inhaling charcoal fumes.

Ahn was reputed to have incurred an enormous gambling debt, some say totalling upwards of $4 million dollars.

The author specifically took aim at the way in which local papers explained in detail the process by which Ahn took his own life, pointing out that several suicides occurred after the meida blitz and that all of them mirrored Ahn’s own methods.

South Korea currently has the highest suicide rate among OECD member states. Statistics show that the average number of suicides for OECD countries is 10 out of 100,000, but in Korea that number more than doubles to 22.

The author writes that media need to be more aware of their impact when reporting events, particularly in light of the country’s high suicide rate.

A similar incident occurred in Japan when media there reported on an outbreak of suicides using a toxic mixture of household chemicals.

Mother kicks herself for not helping son cheat

There’s a piece in the JoongAng about the growing number of support networks for South Korean mothers and housewives. These networks engage in all sorts of activities, from real-estate purchases to child care and social functions. Apparently they also engage in helping their children prepare for exams by gaining access to test questions ahead of time. Last I checked that pretty much amounts to cheating.

Anyway, one mother in particular came to one of these networks after discovering that her son placed 190th out of a class of 400 students.

She soon found out why. It was because she, as a mother, did not have enough information. “Other mothers already knew what sorts of questions would be on exams and prepared their children ahead of time.”

Now, I don’t have anything against people wanting to help eachother out. And I can understand why, in a country where a kid’s grades play such a prominent role in shaping their future, the mother in question would be so concerned. What gets me is that not an iota is mentioned about the fact that the reason the 200 kids above hers were there because they cheated.

High literacy – but no one’s reading in Seoul

A piece in the JoongAng reports that fewer and fewer residents in Seoul read books, preferring to watch TV or surf the Web in their spare time. According to the report, nearly 40 percent of those polled say they have not read a single book in the past year.

Looking at the numbers it’s no wonder that when the anti-beef protests erupted the Internet and broadcast media played such an enormous role in the whole affair. I’m curious what the numbers would be for newspapers.

It’s just another sign of the growing impact that technology is having on Korean society, from family life and traditions to national politics. While the Internet offers access to a tremendous amount of information, alot of that is taken in sideways as users scroll from one page to the next.

Seoul says – pretty weakly – that it’s going to try and get more books into people’s hands, but somehow I doubt they’re going to come up with a way to counter the momentum, much of it first begun by the government itself as a way to boost the country’s economic growth.

Just as an aside, it’s striking that as broad as the Internet is, it can also help feed into a very narrow outlook, as seen in the anti-China — or anti-Korea — slurs that were flying across the netisphere not long ago.

Korean court convicts man for illegal file-sharing

Was surprised to come acorss this story on a decision by an appeals court here to uphold the conviction of a man charged with uploading movies onto the internet for proift. The decision comes as the movie industry here has been in a tailspin, in large part due to the high volume of downloading. All the people I know here do it, and it’s so damn easy. Not even five minutes and you’ve got the latest releases for pennies. In line with the last post, the decision reflects a shifting social landscape here.

Korea’s court rulings reflect changing society

S. Korean court rulings

S. Korean court rulings

An interesting piece in the Korea Times reports that to mark the 60th anniversary of South Korea’s Supreme Court, the judicial body is selecting 12 “rulings of the era,” decisions that have radically altered the social and legal mores of Korean society.

Included in the list of rulings are several decisions affecting gender equality, including one that involves the recognition of the fact that gender transcends physical traits and involves an individual’s “mentality and social attitude,” opening the door for more legal protection of LGBT’s.

Another selction dealt with Korea’s patriarchal family system that once denied certain rights to female family members, including the inheritance of property and other forms of wealth.

A friend here whose mother had divorced once told me her name had been stricken from the family’s census record, as was the case for all of Korea’s divorced women. I am not sure whether this law still exists, but it was a shock to learn, because a woman’s name is also taken off their own family’s register once they are married. So essentially, after divorce, they cease to exist. Or so it seems.

Anyway, reading this reminds me of Martina Deuchler’s work on the Confucian transformation of Korean society beginning in the 16th century. In it, Deuchler plumes the numerous legal precedents that were established over the course of the Chosun Dynasty that ultimately shaped the countours of Korean culture and society.

In a similar vein today’s rulings are helping to redraw the map of Korean life, establishing precedents that will, over time, trickle through to all layers of Korean society.