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?


Pacman Wins!


Pound for pound

The Boxer

By Ross Dix-Peek

The boxer stands with his gloves at the ready
His gait sure and steady
His eyes aware and to the fore
His mind on the bout and nothing more

But deep within, and on his face written
Are the many scars of a life hard-bitten
And while ne’er shy of a hard-fought fight
There is no longer within the feeling of delight

His face has too oft been made to pay
By an opponent better on the day
And though within beats the heart of a lion
His poor bruised body has given up tryin’

And while a fighter to his very core
Just the smell of gloves now he does abhor
Yet, still he stands, eyes puffed and blood galore
Still ready to wage a pugilist’s war

As blow after blow upon his battered head does fall
He knows but only one way, and that is the brawl
And though his poor body has long since given in
The Spirit of the “Fighter” knows no such thing!

UPDATE: The World Boxing Council met in Jeju recently to discuss the sport’s future and a host of other issues ranging from the health of boxers to allieviating global poverty and hunger.

WBC President Dr. José Sulaimán said, “Boxing is going to go up. As long as there is hunger in the world. And hunger, starvation, poverty will always be in this world. The governments of today are not really fighting for the poor people. If they were to spend the money that they spend in war on the poor people of the world we would have a different world.”

It pays to get arrested by North Korea

It’s not as if this comes as any suprise but Euna Lee of the famed Ling/Lee investigative duo has reportedly signed a six-figure deal for a memoir about her time in captivity in North Korea.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind about this, holding back the gag reflex that kicked in when I saw the headline. Maybe “these two brave American women,” as one commenter described them, really were motivated by the purest of intentions if not equipped with the most refined of journalistic skills.

But with the book deal (Ling’s reportedly got her own deal in the works) and the alleged damage their “reporting” did to activists and North Korean refugees in the region, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The arrest of three American hikers by Iranian border guards in late July brought about a similar cascade of vitriol from the on-line community as that hurled at the two women, with commenters calling for them to rot in prison cells for their carelessness, stupidity or simple naivete.

But unlike Ling and Lee, who parachuted into the NK-China border region, Shane Bauer (one of the hikers) had spent considerable time living in and reporting from the Middle East. He spoke the language, knew the culture and judging from his writing he was a sound journalist.

Apart from this their cases are strikingly similar, with both countries leveling charges of espionage and with the Clinton connection coming into play. And while all’s well that ends well for Ling and Lee, the future for the three hikers remains in serious doubt.


This is probably the best analysis I’ve heard on the plight of the three Americans, by Stanford Professor of Iranian Studies Abbas Milani.

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.

Oh what a feeling – Hyundai

Via Reuters comes an analysis of the success that South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia have had in recent months, particulalry in comparison to their Japanese rivals.

Hyundai has also struck gold with big operations in India and China — two of the fastest-growing markets. And ingenious marketing such as an offer to allow buyers to return vehicles if they lost their jobs within a year helped Hyundai and Kia increase sales even in the sinking U.S. market.

The volume growth has come hand in hand with industry-defying profit improvements. In July-September, Hyundai made a record net profit of 979 billion won ($847 million) — equal to the combined earnings of Toyota and Honda Motor that quarter.

For the sake of full disclosure I’ve driven a Hyundai for the past several years, first in the US because it came cheap and now in Korea because, well… because I’m in Korea.

While I’m loathe to heap scorn on our first Hyundai, an  Elantra — simply because like a loyal canine that refused to quit  it took my family and I as far afield as Vancouver and New Mexico — the thing rattled and shook whenever we approached the speed limit. The model I drive now is a vast improvement, far more solid and better milage, but in the end I doubt either will outlast the 25 year old Toyota Camry my folks still drive with 200,000+ miles on it.

But anyway, some of the reasons cited in the Reuter’s piece for Hyundai’s success are the local currency’s relative weakness compared to the Japanese yen, which aid in boosting exports.

This then dovetails with the second reason, which has to do with Seoul’s free-for-all market policies that has led to “more than 40 free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries ranging from the United States to India. Japan has less than a third as many, almost all of them with the rest of Asia.”

What this means for Korea was spelled out in a recent report that warned of a too-heavy reliance on international trade.

South Korea’s dependence on overseas trade exceeded 90 percent of the national income last year for the first time, leaving the nation’s economy more vulnerable to fluctuations in global market conditions…

Comparable ratios for Japan stood at 31.6 percent, while those for India, Australia and Britain were 37.7 percent, 39.1 percent and 41.2 percent, respectively, suggesting that those countries have well-nurtured domestic markets…

Lingering uncertainty in the job market is a major source of concern for leaders in Seoul when it comes to the health of South Korea’s domestic market. While unemployment figures have been improving there’s concern that they could drop off again once a government-led job creation plan ends this month. According to Yonhap irregular employees make up some 35 percent of the nation’s workforce.

The latest figures on household income aren’t promising either, with average household income fallingand  for the second straight quarter with a family of two earning just under US$3000 per month.

North Korean defector poetry


Frozen borders


When Will That Day Come?
By Hong Soo Young

Seasons never stop and just go by
This year again, fall is upon me
How come the wall of separation
Is not crumbling down yet

With fall, the foliage comes
The foliage gone, white frost is everywhere
Seasons go by in vain
How come the frost filling my soul
Will not thaw

When will the day come, the day of the rallying cry of unification
The day that will thaw
The frost filling my soul

That day is approaching, one day at a time
The day I will meet my beloved family
Is not too far away
Will that day only
Thaw the frost filling my soul

I wish for that day to come, I wish to greet the day
That will thaw the frost filling my soul
And replace it with warmth and coziness.

Taken from NK Economy Watch