Leaving home to find it

I flew home last week, or what I thought was home. As soon as I stepped out of the airport everything appeared as if through a fog, vaguely familiar but somehow different, even foreign. After having spent the past couple of years complaining about, lashing out against and ultimately adjusting to life here in Korea, I found that I no longer felt at home in the city I was born and raised in.

For one thing, drivers in San Francisco have this strange tendency to stop for pedestrians. My first day back, brain addled by sleep deprivation and hours of continuous on-flight movies, I stood frozen when cars stopped at the crosswalk to let me pass. In Seoul there’s no question but that you get the hell out of the way when vehicles approach. I didn’t know what to do, unsure of whether the drivers would gun it as soon as I stepped off the curb.

I think I read somewhere once that San Franciscans were ranked some of the sloppiest dressers among residents of major urban areas. Once upon a time it never would have occurred to me to pay attention to how folks were dressed, but coming from uber-trendy Seoul it’s one of the first things I noticed. People in SF looked like there were walking around in their pajamas.

And the faces. All kinds, all ethnicities. So unlike the never-ending sameness of Korea, that maddening, comforting sense of living in a village/nation where everyone is a variation of the same theme. SF felt fragmented, everyone a stranger who neither shared the same tongue, ate the same food… only occupying the same space. In Korea I am a minority; in SF, everyone is.

That sense of fragmentation seemed to permeate the very air passing through the city, an air straight off the Pacific so clear and crisp like brittle glass that would shatter at the slightest touch. My neighbors of 30 plus years, Korean immigrants who worked their way from the bottom up to secure their piece of the American pie, lost everything in the recent finanical debacle. The father, who barely speaks English, just shook his head in disgust when he told me. “30 years, stupid stupid….” My wife urged them to return to Korea.

When I landed at Incheon International I breathed a sigh of relief at the familiarity around me. I left a place that I’ve always thought of as home, a place where traditions crumble and reform in a continual act of self-creation. I’m not sure now whether it’s home or not, but I wonder whether in the end that’s what it means to be a San Franciscan. Allowing the walls of certainty to come crashing down so that you can then rebuild them, piece by piece.

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…

Made in China

Went to the local E-mart a few nights ago. Standing around with my son while my wife finished the shopping we both got sucked into staring at a nearby flat-panel TV screen showing Madagascar 2. “Wow, look at that quality, and the price… but what the hell is a Haier?” The sales woman told us it was the latest model out of China, a big hit in Europe. Always wary of sales pitches I chose not to believe her spiel, assuming it was likely some no-name knock off.

This from Reuters:

Korea also faces stiff competition to hang onto its edge in sophisticated manufacturing from China itself. In electronics, Haier and Hisense have developed wide product lines while automakers from BYD to Geely have started to attract attention overseas.

I guess she was telling the truth afterall. In fact South Korea is facing increased challenges from its rising neighbor on all fronts, including the local mainstay. According to a London-based researcher, Chinese shipbuilders outstripped their South Korean rivals in orders this year. British author Simon Winchester begins his book on walking across Korea with a look at the country’s shipyards nearly twenty years ago, predicting that the sight before his eyes spells a death knell for England’s own shipping industry. I wonder if local manufacturers are now thinking the same thing when they look west.

Trade wars

It’s not all doom and gloom though. China may (or may not) move to allow its currency to appreciate against the dollar, which would be welcome news to the U.S. and columnists over at the IHT. For South Korea, analysts say a stronger yuan would mean “more demand for Korean goods on Chinese markets.” China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by the way and has been since 2003.

The bulk of that trade, however, isn’t in consumer goods but rather in materials used to produce finished exports. Per the Reuters article cited above:

Geographic proximity, cultural affinity and its own recent experience of economic development provided South Korea with a platform to reach out to China. Its companies — notably, electronics makers such as LG Electronics and Samsung — adapted their business models to send intermediate goods to China for assembly before selling the finished products abroad.

Such manufacturing inputs account for roughly half of all of Chinese imports. So as China’s export factories revved up production, South Korea and Taiwan, the two countries most integrated in their supply chain, reaped huge dividends.

China rising

Playing with fire

An editorial in the Korea Times bemoans the country’s lack of fire prevention and overall safety standards, echoing President Lee Myung-bak’s statements that the fire that claimed 10 lives, including seven Japanese tourists, at a Busan shooting range diminished South Korea’s reputation.  A breakdown of tragic fires in South Korea over the past decade:

Eight people died in a fire at a state-run psychiatric hospital in northern Seoul in 2000 and another eight were killed in a blaze at a cram school in Gwangju City in 2001. A fire in a red-light district in Gunsan City claimed 12 lives in 2002. No one can forget the arson attack on the Daegu City subway train in 2003 which killed 192 passengers. Nine foreigners were killed in a fire engulfing the immigration service’s detention center for undocumented visitors in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, in 2007.

Last year, 47 people died in separate fires at two refrigerated warehouses in Icheon, 80 kilometers south of Seoul. The country also lost Namdaemun gate, a 610-year-old landmark at the heart of the capital city, in February 2009, due to another arson attack. All those incidents were blamed on the nation’s widespread violations of safety and fire prevention steps.

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?

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.

China absorbing North Korea

On a recent trip to North Korea, John Linton remarked after viewing that country’s athletic blitzkrieg known as the Arirang Games, which closed on Oct. 20, that a third of the performance was in praise of China.

All for one

The son of missionary parents raised in rural South Jeolla Province and current head of Yonsei’s College of Medicine, Linotn’s remarks, according to this editorial in the Hankyoreh, are further proof of North Korea’s steady absorption by China and the misguided policies of Seoul’s current 2MB administration.

China is filling the void of inter-Korean cooperation spawned by deteriorating inter-Korean relations, and is establishing development projects on its own in the regions around the North Korea-China border.

“To put it simply,” it declares,  “this region is becoming a fourth province of northeastern China.”

It’s food for thought, but I think the author makes the mistake of assuming that Pyongyang will simply roll over and allow Beijing to swallow it whole. If nothing else, North Korea’s leaders are masters at playing powers off of one another while milking them for all their worth. And despite its show of affection, my sense is that the North remains just as wary of China as it does all others beyond its borders.

For a less emotional analyses of what exactly might lie behind Beijing’s North Korea policy, Foreign Policy offers its take on why China continues to shirk its duties to international peace and security “commensurate” with its global status (terminology employed by the U.S. when it pressed Seoul and Tokyo to support efforts in Afghanistan.)

Beijing now deliberately separates its bilateral relationship with North Korea from the nuclear issue, placing the responsibility for nuclear questions on the United States. In Beijing’s eyes, the recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Pyongyang was evidence of the success of this dual-track approach. The China-North Korea bilateral relationship was strengthened significantly, with the announcement of Chinese aid and economic cooperation packages worth more than $200 million. Far from fearing being marginalized in nuclear talks, China is pushing for a bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea. Should the United States not pursue this option, it will be harder to convince Beijing to take a tough line with Pyongyang in the future.

Not to be outfoxed, Washington will be sending Stephen Bosworth to Beijing in the not-too-distant future, with the express purpose of “failing” to sway Pyongyang and thereby throwing the ball back into Beijing’s court. A game of nuclear hot potato as it were.

A few more stats on China’s “bonds with North Korea

A report published by the Korean Industrial and Financial Research Institute reveals that China has a near monopoly over North Korea’s mineral resources, both through direct purchases and by obtaining development rights. All major contracts were signed around 2005, including 50-year rights to develop Musan Iron Ore, the largest iron ore mine in East Asia, and 25-year rights to exploit the Hyesan copper mine.

The above article concludes that “Just as international sanctions against Sudan gave China almost exclusive access to that country’s resources, the same thing is happening in North Korea.”

It leaves out any reference to the North’s gold reserves, however, which according to this 2007 Christian Science Monitor piece are impressive. Beijing has been buying gold on the (Chinese) domestic market, which is sometimes referred to as the “People’s Central Bank,” in order to safeguard against USD risk and to bolster the future expansion of its own currency.

In addition, a report in the Telegraph notes that the global gold supply is running out. If that’s the case than Beijing, as the dominant player in North Korea, could stand to make a killing.