South Korean rice farmers look North

According to the Hankyoreh Seoul’s policy of witholding rice aid to North Korea is driving down the price of of the grain, prompting thousands of farmers to take to the streets in protest.

Approximately 30 thousand South Korean farmers convened together for a National Farmers’ Convention to ask the government to address plummeting rice prices on Tuesday.

The main cause of plummeting rice prices is the government’s decision not to send rice aid to North Korea, (they said)… During the previous administration, 400 thousand tons of rice were sent to North Korea annually, whereas the current administration has stocked up over 800 thousand tons of rice. (Protesters) say the excess reserves of rice are one of the main causes of the steep decline in the price of rice.

As if to add insult to injury, Seoul recently offered 10,000 tons of imported corn aid to Pyongyang, which further riled local rice growers and was, being far less than what  was  expected, rebuffed by the North as “narrow minded.”

With this year being a bumper crop year, a bag of 80 kilograms of rice is now traded at around 130,000 won, about 15 percent lower than last year.

Farmers are razing rice paddies out of anger, stacking bags of rice outside as they run out of storage space and dumping the surplus rice in the South while millions of people are starving in the North as they are short of some 800,000 tons of rice…

According to the local human rights group Good Friends, parts of North Korea are suffering from one of the worst food shortages in over eight decades. “People live on acorns and herbs they collect in mountains while the better-off eat mostly porridge to save rice, not just in Hamgyeong but also in South Pyongan Province,” it said.

so many mouths

A more salient factor behind the drop in prices could be the fact that Koreans are simply eating less of the one-time staple, and much of what they are eating is increasingly coming from overseas. As globalization continues to take hold, the local diet has become far more international.

Rice, which once determined a person’s financial status and served as the beloved staple of Korean food, is becoming less symbolic and losing its appeal here as the country increasingly opens its palate to the world and moves toward globalization.

During the 1980s, the average Korean consumed 130 kilograms of rice annually. As of last year, it stood at 76 kilograms, which is roughly equivalent to two servings a day versus four several decades ago.

One of the approaches to resolving the dilemma facing farmers is promoting consumption of rice-based products like makkeolli, the fermented rice wine that goes oh so well with a meal of barbecued bacon.

Exports of traditional Korean rice wine surged by more than 20 percent in the first nine months of this year mainly due to strong demand from Japan, a government report said yesterday.

Exports of makgeolli, or rice wine, reached $3.56 million totaling 4,380 tons up until September, the Korea Customs Service said.

I’ve recently spotted canned versions of the drink, which usually come in plastic green bottles. I even saw a packet of garlic flavored makkeolli. But again, the problem is that most of the rice used to produce makkeolli and similar rice based products comes from abroad, meaning local farmers are not likely to benefit from the stronger sales.

Clash with squatters reflects violent divide

Grieving relatives

Grieving relatives

Weeping cop

Weeping cop

The first image comes from the liberal Hankyoreh, with the headline “Police prevent families of protest victims from identifying loved ones.” The second image is from the more conservative JoongAng, which reports, “Court keeps 5 in custody for fire that took 6 lives.”

The two papers have been reporting on the deadly fire that broke out in Seoul’s Yongsan Ward after a police commando unit raided a building being occupied by local residents protesting a redevelopment project in the area. The protesters, mostly small business operators in the area, say they had been swept aside by the developers — Samsung C&T and POSCO — with little in the way of compensation. Police, under a newly appointed National Police chief, blame the protesters for the tragedy, citing a storehouse of molatov cocktails and other flamable materials collected by the squatters.

Surely police knew of the weapons being stored by the protesters, which is why they went in with the SWAT team. A newly appointed police chief must also have been trying to display his mettle to the president. But such tactis as used by the unit that raided the building not only put the protestors and themselves at risk but also the other buildings and residents in the area. Wouldn’t a more professional approach have involved prolonged negotiations to get the squatters out peacefully?

The Hankyoreh suggests a growing relationship between developers and police, who can be depended upon to resolve situations involving intransgent residents standing in the way of the bull dozers. Considering, too, the reputation of heavy handedness around the current administration it’s not surprising the squatters felt they had no recourse but to arm themselves with molotov cocktails. They felt they were being brushed aside by forces far more powerful than themselves and indifferent to their lives.

Just as an afterthought in lieu of nothing particular, went to the Korean War memorial in Yongsan two weeks ago and couldn’t help but notice the cases that housed the latest in military hardware. Proudly displayed alongside bullets the size of my three-year-old son were the logos of many of the nation’s construction firms, including POSCO. Seemed a sort of dark testament to the more violent side of a nation’s progress.

Government commando “fixers”

The Hankyoreh has an article on how the government has increasingly relied on its commando units to suppress civic dissent.

Per the article:

Park Rae-gun of the SARANGBANG Group for Human Rights said, “The fact that the police commando unit is being deployed to places like the sites of worker strikes itself shows the government’s way of thinking, viewing the demands of people like workers as ‘operations targets’ that must be brought under control.”

Thoughts on Korean politics, language, the weather

Winter in Korea

Winter in Korea

As Seoul’s first snow this winter is already turning black, I find myself pondering the quirks of a language I have resolved — again — to learn.

I’m essentially at a very rudimentary level of Korean, which allows for basic communication with a lot of umms and ahhs and jerky hand gestures thrown in for emphasis. But it also allows for some wiggle room out of a particular trait of the Korean language that is part and parcel of the country’s social hierarchy.

A colleague of mine, an American, is at a more advanced level and he often communicates with our Korean co-workers using Korean as opposed to English. Which means that when he addresses those senior to him he has to use honorifics — even with people he may not like or repsect — that nevertheless connote respect and bolster the difference in status. It is not a conversation between equals.

My own broken Korean, on the other hand, allows me to transgress the language’s built in rules of inequality by pleading ignorance. In simply trying to communicate, I may inadvertantly fail to acknowledge a person’s seniority over me. Which, truth be told, suits me fine.

A couple of cases in point.

There’s a few folks I work with who would often comment out of the sides of their mouth that I used ordinary speech, as opposed to honorifics, when speaking to them in Korean. Only later, when they learned that I was actually as old or older than they were, did those comments cease. Still, it used to annoy the hell out of me.

Another instance. There’s a grouchy old man that lives up the block from me. The first time I met him, I was sitting by a nearby stream that runs outside his house with my wife and kid. He stared for about ten or fifteen minutes, then launched into a gruff-sounding personal biography about how he’d been born on that block and all the honors he’d gotten for his extreme nativism.

Now, there are two ways to say “once upon a time” or “back then” in Korean. One translates as “at that time” while the other sounds more like “long ago.” The difference in usage still seems a little subtle to me though, and so I used the latter one. He didn’t like that. His face twisted into this angry scowl as he waved his finger in my face telling me I was still a young punk and how dare I say “long ago” in reference to my own life. Needless to say, it caught me by surprise.

Still, he calmed down and eventually even handed my son an apple from his yard. It was a lesson in the language that I won’t soon forget. Which, tangentially, leads me to the other thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head these past few days.

The first has to do with the seemingly incoherent events that transpire in a country where one is neither a native or native speaker. In a recent conversation with a friend who’se just returned to Korea after an extended abscence, he was curious to know what had happened with the beef protests that had rocked the country last summer and seriously perplexed him. I told him U.S. beef was selling like hotcakes.

More recently is the case of Minerva, the on-line freakonomist who was arrested for spreading $2 billion dollar lies on the Internet. Now, a lot of foreign press coverage I’ve read spins the issue as a simple crackdown on Internet freedom (guilty as charged). But behind all the headlines is basically a big question mark about the hows and whys of this issue. When you don’t understand something, it’s always easier to dismiss it as either stupid or malicious. While it could be both, there’s usually more to it.

A Korean friend who is logical to a fault explained to me that Minerva had become a sort of rallying point for all those who hate the current government. Like U.S. beef, it was less about the issue itself and more about the conduit it provided for netizen’s almost unconscious disgust with the Lee administration. The Internet too has become this sort of platform for political mobilization, though certainly folks are going to be more cautious about their on-line comments.

The other thought has to do with North Korea. I read somewhere that Seoul has just published a dictionary of literary terms used in either one or both of the two Koreas. The 60 year political and cultural divide has led to a growing divergence in the two countries’ languages, as for example their definition of the term modernism: it’s either a progressive cultural and artistic movement or a petit-bourgeois capitalist conspiracy. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one is which. They also use completely different words for computer and a host of other terms that often require translation.

Now you might think that this proves the two countries are wholly irreconcilable, but actually they’re more alike than one might think. Take for example the news that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has tapped his third son to be next in line for the communist throne. Nevermind the younger Kim seems to be in as bad health as his pop. South Korea too is lining up to introduce a few new leaders itself. Though not blood related, the political ties are a little incestuous. Except with Samsung, where dynastic succession seems to be the order of the day.

The ‘bulldozer’ and the Buddha: Korea’s dangerous middle

Lee's holy warriors

Lee's holy warriors

There’s so much frenetic energy here in Seoul, constant movement and tension as the country’s politics, religion and economy collide amidst a backdrop of smog, traffic and soju. It’s palpable on the street, as if charged by the humidity in the air.

The standoff between the administration and Jogye Temple, headquarters of the country’s largest Buddhist order, continues, with plain clothed police surrounding all exits in and out of the temple for the past month, as militant organizers of last month’s beef protests sit camped on the temple grounds. The cops are all young and baby-faced, not like cops in the US with razor mustaches and guns at the waist. These guys barely look out of high school, and are probably doing police duty as an alternative to military service.

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Protests erupt on Korea’s Constitution day

Protesters and police clash in Seoul  

Protesters and police clash in Seoul

After eighteen days of relative quiet, at least as far as candle light vigils go, protesters reappeared in Seoul’s Jongro area on Thursday to protest Korea’s importation of US beef. Police in riot gear clashed with what the Hankyoreh says was a crowd of over ten thousand as Korea commemorated the 60th anniversary of its constitution.

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