Jeju love affair

An article on the life and work of photographer Kim Young-gap, who spent the last ten years of his life submerging himself into the hidden beauty of Korea’s southern island. Kim died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2005.

I visited a gallery set up in his name on the island in 2006. His love of the island and his devotion to his craft shined through in every single image.

He would spend days searching for the perfect shot and once he saw the image he was looking for he would set up his camera and wait, returning to the same exact place day after day waiting for the wind to push the clouds into frame, the sun to give the perfect light, for the colors to be palpable and full.

He spent the last ten years of his life walking through the mid-mountain ranges waiting to find the sublime. The tangerine famers that lived in the rural areas of his search did not know what to think of him. So alien he seemed with his long hair, his camera, sitting in fields for days on end that they mistook him for being mentally ill or at the very least a beggar…


Korea’s “God Gene”

Walking to work this morning I passed an elderly Catholic nun who I often see strolling along the street outside my home. Bracing against the cold and thinking about how hard it’s going to be to kick my coffee habit at the onset of winter my mind turned to the ubiquity of religion in South Korea.

So when I opened my computer I was surpirsed to see this in today’s IHT, a biological explanation for the Evolution of religion throughout human history. I found this passage particulary pertinent to the Korean context.

In natural selection, it is genes that enable their owners to leave more surviving progeny that become more common. The idea that natural selection can favor groups, instead of acting directly on individuals, is highly controversial. Though Darwin proposed the idea, the traditional view among biologists is that selection on individuals would stamp out altruistic behavior (the altruists who spent time helping others would leave fewer children of their own) far faster than group-level selection could favor it.

But group selection has recently gained two powerful champions, the biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, who argued that two special circumstances in recent human evolution would have given group selection much more of an edge than usual. One is the highly egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies, which makes everyone behave alike and gives individual altruists a better chance of passing on their genes. The other is intense warfare between groups, which enhances group-level selection in favor of community-benefiting behaviors such as altruism and religion.

South Korea is no doubt a very group-oriented society, a fact that is often used to distinguish itself from its Western counterpart. Korea is also a very religious society, as seen in the proliferation of crosses that dot urban skylines in the South or the cult of personality in the North.

But does Korea’s history of war and invasion mean that Koreans are more “hard-wired” to believe? And more to the point, does it mean there is nothing more to these beliefs than simple programming?

Killer coffee

My office is about a 20 minute walk from where I live, with four different routes all of which take roughly the same amount of time. Depending on how spritely I feel — and how many cups of coffee I’ve had — I could either go uphill or down.


Mix coffee it aint

The former winds through scenic alleways before opening onto a view of Seoul’s mountains and the first coffee shop on that particular route. Continue down past the second, then the third and fourth coffee shops and turn left at the Starbucks. In fact, all roads lead to Starbucks, whether its the one on the main strip or the other branch tucked into a comely little courtyard.

The first time I came to Korea ten years ago the hardest thing to adjust to wasn’t the gusting minus 27 winds or the stares and whispers of migukin every time I walked past. It was the fact that the only choices I had when it came to my morning brew were hazelnut or Maxim, the Korean version of Tasters Choice. Ugghhhh. Mornings were horrendous as I stumbled about the streets of Seoul in search of a decent cup o’ joe, like a junkee looking for his fix. I shudder at the memory. But oh how times have changed.

A colleague of mine who grew up in Soeul once recalled the times he used to spend lounging in the local tea houses, or dabangs,which once populated Insadong and other areas. Most of these are long gone, replaced first by Starbucks and later by gourmet coffee houses that even to this long-time addict take the drink just a bit too seriously.

Even in temples, where tea once enjoyed a pride of place not far beneath the buddha himself, old fashioned coffee grinders and black powders from Kenya, Brazil or some other far flung destination have begun to replace the old hand-made ceramic tea sets. The poor old leaf never stood a chance against the bigger, brawnier bean.



A british friend of mine refuses to patronize Starbucks. He says all the little cafes that he prefers have been bled dry by the proliferation of that spawn of Seattle (which he also seems to dislike for some reason). One afternoon we opted for the little no-name place across the way from 스타버크스 (pronounced something like suhtabahkuhsuh), and I ended up with an americano that tatsed like the styrofoam cup it came in.

So as Seoulites are rapidly being weaned off of tea and increasingly suckled by the bitter-sweet brew, I end this with an email I received this morning warning of the ill side effects brought about by coffee addiction. Coffee drinkers beware…

Pesticide Exposure

Chances are the coffee you drink is made from beans grown outside this country.

Coffee beans are known to be a heavily sprayed crop, and the U.S. has limited input and control over the type and quantity of pesticides used in the countries from which we import.

Aside from the damage coffee alone can do, pesticides are contributors to a wide range of health problems, including prostate and other cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and even miscarriages.

Metabolic Damage

Coffee stimulates your adrenals — the hormones that activate your fight or flight re­sponse. If your adrenal hormones are stimulated too often, which is bound to happen if you are a daily coffee drinker, your adrenal glands may eventually burn out.

When your adrenals no longer function effectively, your body will go in search of a re­placement hormone — which happens to be progesterone.

Progesterone has its own full-time job to do, part of which is to keep your body’s estro­gen in balance. As your progesterone is used up compensating for your exhausted ad­renals, you run the risk of becoming estrogen dominant.

Estrogen dominance can lead to osteoporosis.

Coffee also raises the acidity level of your blood, causing calcium to be pulled from your bones and teeth for use as a buffering agent. The combination of estrogen dominance and high blood acidity puts you at an even greater risk for osteoporosis. In fact, research has established an undeniable link between coffee consumption and hip fractures.

A Pick Me Up? Don’t Kid Yourself!

Fatigue is the number one daily complaint among Americans. Are you using coffee to combat feelings of tiredness and low energy?

Caffeine is a strong stimulant and will deliver a temporary jolt, which may feel like a burst of energy to you.

But the truth is, coffee only gives you the illusion of energy and not the real thing. Over the long-term coffee actually depletes your B vitamin supply, and lack of B vitamins depletes your energy.

If you struggle with fatigue and low energy on a daily basis, your body is telling you it’s time to assess your health and lifestyle choices. Drinking coffee is not the answer to chronic feelings of weariness and lack of energy.

A Much Healthier Alternative to Your Coffee Habit

As my regular readers know, my first recommendation for a healthy beverage is always pure water. It is by far the best choice you can make.

But if you’re looking to kick your coffee habit to improve your health, a cup of high-qual­ity green tea can be a great alternative as a warm, soothing morning beverage.

All hail the idiot box


The medium is the message

“I want to watch a moooovie…” That’s become the near-daily mantra my son repeats as soon as he wakes up and right before going to bed. Power Rangers, Little Einsteins, Caillou… in truth it could probably be anything and he’d likely turn to stone in front of the glowing screen.

Which is great for me on a weekday at 7pm, dead tired and looking to tune out alongside him. But there’s no denying that he’s grown addicted to the TV, and while we’ve managed to curb his watching time to just a couple of hours per day the box’s presence, even when off, is magnetic.

Which is what drew me to this article from Foreign Policy. Living in one of the world’s most high-tech societies I naturally assumed that the revolution would indeed not be televised but rather Tweeted or Twittered or thumbed across the digital ether. Hard to believe the ol’ boob tube still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

According to the author, televsion programming could help to create

a world more equal for women, healthier, better governed, more united in response to global tragedy, and more likely to vote for local versions of American Idol than shoot at people.

Where’s that damn remote? In cities, towns and villages — even where there is no electricity — around the globe humans gather around their TVs like moths to a flame. One Indian lawmaker even encouraged residents to watch more so as to lower the country’s birthrate.

In olden days people had no other entertainment but sex, which is why they produced so many children…  it is important that there is electricity in every village so that people watch TV till late in the night. By the time the serials are over, they’ll be too tired to have sex and will fall asleep.

I guess it beats forced sterilisations, but with Baywatch the biggest television series ever with an estimated audience of 1 billion I have to wonder…

Television programming here in Korea is huge. I remember stepping into a local bunsikjeom (Korean style greasy spoon) for dinner once. Across from me sat these two leathery old men, chewing on raw chilie peppers, downing soju by the bottle and arguing with the waitress about who would marry who on the local soap opera playing on the screen above. Weird.

But then again, former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reportedly gave his North Korean counterpart a box set of the drama Jewel in the Palace during his 2007 summit in Pyongyang.

Russian-born Korea scholar Andrei Lanov has long been trumpeting the use of DVDs and similar means to bring news of the outside world to North Koreans starved by their government’s self-imposed isolation.

Rumors of South Korean prosperity have begun to spread, assisted by popular smuggled DVDs of South Korean movies. The world’s most perfect Stalinist regime is starting to disintegrate from below.

According to Lankov, DVD technology is perfectly suited to the North Korean case given the relative affordabilty of players and discs. And while radios have their place in delivering subversive information, images showing the propserity of Seoul and surrounding areas  make it hard to swallow the line that the South is a bastion of poverty and misery.

Simple curiosity or racism?

I tend to shy away from conversations about race in Korea, just because they tend to be circular and not really go anywhere. Also because more often than not they tend to be in English (or any other language that is not Korean) and thus miss the audience that most needs to be included in the conversation. But recent experiences that coincide with a few blog posts I’ve read and a NYT article have brought me out of my self-imposed silence, and back to the blogosphere.

My family and I spent the weekend with some friends in a small town in Gyeonggi.  Not far away is the town of Ildong, which boasts the only real sulfur hot spring in the province. Being a fan of the public mogyoktang, I decided to take my son there for the afternoon.

As I said I love the sauna, but in Korea it took me some time before I felt completely at ease strutting around in the buck through a crowd of naked Korean men. Partly cause I’m whte, and partly cause I’m blue. Or more precisly, cause I’ve got all kinds of tatoos scattered around my body that never fail to draw unwanted stares.

Anyway, for the first year or two I frequented Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel, or the newer Itaewon Land (five stories of hot tubs, hot rooms and a kiddie playground for parents looking for a reprieve). I figured if there’s anywhere in Korea where an ink covered foreigner can fit in its Itaewon.  It worked well, more or less, and I’ve since gotten over the trauma caused by my first visit to a Korean bathhouse. (That was a nightmare!)

It’s a rainy Sunday in fall, perfect weather for lazing in a tub or sweating it out in the steam room. My 4-year-old son, an experienced patron of the bathhouse in his own right, eases himself into the steaming pool with a loud groan of satisfaction. “Siwonhada…” All the ajjusis stare with mute faces that could either be looks of disgust or simple curiosity. I can never tell.

Soon some of the kids approach, their eyes wide with wonder. Are we the first non-Koreans they’ve ever seen or just the first naked ones? One young boy of about 8 or so starts to follow my son around, pointing at him and barking out, “Can you speak Korean? Let me see,” with an innocent and unknowingly offensive snicker as if my son were some monkey performing tricks.

None of this occurred to my son, thankfully, who just starts repeating ni hao ma whenever anyone asks him to speak Korean (which he does, fluently for a kid his age). What’s worse is that none of it seemed to occur to the boy’s father either, or to the boy himself. Which makes me want to believe that it was and is simple curiosity and not the kind of hostile racism that I know others experience here. But still…

Do I want my kid growing up in a country where there are basically two main racial categories, Korean and non-Korean? Where his ethnicity and appearance will constantly be a reason to question his place here? Where (what are in my view) anachronistic attitudes about race that get hammered into kids starting at a very young age?

There are a great many things that I appreciate about being in Korea, and more than a few things that I think the U.S. could learn from this place, but when it comes to my kid that question always gives me pause.

Not long ago we were standing outside Itaewon Land sauna when a young African American couple walked past. My son asked in his childishly exuberant voice why they were black. They heard, but kept walking. I thought, “Christ, it’s time to get back to the U.S.”

Anger and sadness punctuate Roh’s funeral

Friday’s headline in Seoul’s Kyunghyang Newspaper quotes former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung announcing that the nation’s democracy is regressing, as up to a million have gathered in the capital to mourn the death of his successor Roh Moo-hyun. Many blame the current leader.

The air is charged here as riot police have turned out in droves to contain the masses turning out for the late leader’s state funeral, the second highest ever to be given in South Korea. Enormous screens project the funeral proceedings for those unable to enter the grounds of the ancient Gyeongbok Palace, where the ceremony is being held.

A young man who like many gathered here wears a yellow ribbon around his neck in honor of Roh, points at the police phalanxes that line Jongno, a major boulevard leading past City Hall to the gates of the palace. “This is supposed to be a public funeral,” he says, “but obviously it isn’t.” Yellow was the color used during Roh’s 2002 presidential campaign.

An officer squatting in the shade of a nearby alley puts the number of police dispatched in the tens-of-thousands, his face a mixture of fatigue and anxiety at the hours ahead. Many say mourners have held back their anger out of respect for the ceremony but warn of clashes once it ends.

Banners flying above the crowds read “Rest in Peace” on one side, while on the other “Lee Myung-bak out!”

Inside the palace Prime Minster Han Seung-soo, who was turned back days earlier by crowds of Roh supporters while visiting the late leader’s rural residence, addresses a crowd of dignitaries and ordinary citizens. “We have gathered here today to bid goodbye to former President Roh Moo-hyun who spent his life fighting for human rights, democracy and the destruction of authoritarianism — a true ‘people’s president.’”

Meanwhile, an opposition lawmaker verbally assaulted President Lee as he approached to lay a flower upon Roh’s body. “You’re a political murderer,” shouted Baek Won-woo of the Democratic Party before being hauled out by security, according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

The succession of events that have transpired in recent days has been truly mind boggling, even for a nation long used to political and social crises. Minutes before the funeral commenced, reports emerged that Chinese fishing vessels off the peninsula’s west coast were fleeing the area in expectation of a possible military clash with North Korea

On the morning of Saturday, May 23, Roh, 62, who served as president from 2003 to 2008, leapt from a cliff above his rural home some 450 km southeast of Seoul. A number of questions surround the circumstances of his death, however, including conflicting statements by a security detail with Roh at the time of his death, suspicions that have only fueled a sense of insecurity and anger here.

As news of the tragedy spread, with citizens across the country turning out to express their grief and shock, North Korea conducted a nuclear test followed by several test-firings of short-range missiles. Then it announced it was scrapping an armistice agreement signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War after Seoul made public its decision to join a U.S. led anti-proliferation campaign largely known to target the North.

Yet despite the chill northerly winds, the gathering storm here seems focused more on Roh’s death and the responsibility born by the current Lee Myung-bak government. A wreath sent in Lee’s name to Bongha Village, where Roh had taken up farming after retiring from office, was destroyed by the late leader’s supporters.

Lee, who took office in February of 2008 from an embattled and at the time unpopular Roh, overturned many of his predecessor’s policies, including generous aid to the North. He has also presided over a string of controversies involving police crackdowns of public protests, starting with last summer’s anti-U.S. beef rallies and more recently the death of several squatters at the hands of a police swat team in January.

In the weeks leading to Roh’s death, state prosecutors had stepped up their investigation into allegations that Roh had received $6 million in bribes from a local businessman. The probe, which culminated in an unprecedented ten hour grilling of Roh, was widely perceived to be politically motivated by Lee’s government.

These and other incidents have fed into a growing sense of a more draconian style of leadership under Lee, who ironically fashioned himself after the country’s first military ruler Park Cheong-hee. Park helped transform South Korea from an East Asian backwater to a global economic powerhouse, though at the cost of political freedom.

Immigrant wives diversify S. Korean theatre

Via Yonhap a nice article on how a fledgling theatre company is aiming to help give a voice to the struggles immigrant women in South Korea face. 

 “When someone tells me ‘you scared me,’ I reply, ‘You scared me, too,'” Berera says with a laugh.

 Berera is a main member of the [Salad theatre] company begun earlier this year. Funded by the United Nations Development Program, Salad aims to create jobs for immigrant women like Berera who left their homeland and wed Korean husbands.

“We thought it would help immigrant women to tell their stories on stage rather than just talk about the difficulties they face in Korea,” said Ahn Soon-hwa, co-chairman of Salad and a Chinese immigrant, at the company’s rehearsal room in northern Seoul.