Thursday, January 24, 2008

South Korea's "Liberation Day" is not so 'liberating'

August 15, 2005 - Liberation Day
by Saigon Charlie

Today is South Korean 'Liberation Day' and feeling rather 'liberated' (as it is a holiday), I am sitting here scanning the headline news articles of Today's 'Korea Herald'. On the front page however I see the headline, '4.2 Mil. Pardoned on Liberation Day'. Huhh? I thought this was South Korea, not the north. How in the world can this western industrialized country of 48.3 million people pardon 4.22 million of its citizens? Or in other words, nearly 10% are recognized 'criminals'?! Pardon is a pretty strong word, so let's hope it also refers to people with parking tickets and traffic violations. Better read on...

The article goes on to say that this is not the 1st time this has happened, (which obviously includes the Korean equivalents of Richard Nixon), but it has happened 3 other times over the past decade as well. This has got me really interested now. Better read this article and find out more.

According to the article, amnesty (another strong word) was granted to 7 million in 1995, 5.5 million in 1998 and 4.8 million in 2002. Assuming that the numbers do not include repeat offenders, the numbers add up to nearly half the population in the past decade who were convicted of crimes of one form or another. As you might expect, kickbacks and illegal fundraising for the politicians are included on the lengthy list but simple crimes as theft due to poverty (12,000) and violations of national security law (1,900), were also included. Assuming women don't do crime, that means that nearly the entire male population that lives in Korea today has been classified in a way that requires either an 'amnesty' or a 'pardon' at one time or another (half???). Hmmmm. Maybe this is why my worthless, used bicycle disappeared from inside the hallway of my apartment on a Sunday morning while I took a shower after it had been parked for only an hour. This is in a community where crosses and churches are everywhere and supposedly everyone is religious with some churches boasting of congregations in excess of 800,000! Unlike in the USA, doing the crime here appears you won't do the time. I guess they don't want their men in prisons as the North Korean Army rolls across the DMZ...

It is of course the 60th anniversary of Korea's liberation from a 35 year period of Japanese occupation before and during WWII. I do not pretend to be any expert on Korean history but with what little I do know, it seems it was pretty brutal. Not sure if the present Korean physic is because of this or the brutality was a response to the Korean's hardness and resistance. I suspect the latter.

On the point of the peninsula where I have been living, I am almost a stone's throw from the infamous DMZ between North and South Korea. A walk in the woods on the hills surrounding my village unveils a huge catacomb of trenches, gun and machine-gun emplacements, all unoccupied at the moment, but with the sound of automatic weapons fire drifting up from the surrounding valleys as soldiers test their weapons for the day, it sort of took something away from the picnic in the woods that I had planned for that beautiful summer morning.

Even when I lived in Germany at the height of the cold war in the late 1970s, I never saw so many reminders that the potential for conflict was so close (and real). Here there are uniforms everywhere. Nowhere and at no time can you not go out in public and not see scores of Korea's finest dressed in the dress of the day; olive drab camouflage. Although the mandatory draft has been reduced from 3 years to 2 here in Korea, it is still mandatory and rigidly enforced unlike other countries such as Germany.

Anyway, back to Korea. The 60th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan also marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb droppings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also marks a point in time where talks are underway to stop North Korea from continuing their development of nuclear weapons as well as joint US/Korean military exercises in the south. My oh my, what a wonderful world we live in.

Although I have never been to North Korea and once again am no expert by any definition, I did recently read a book by Jasper Becker called
'
Rogue Regime: Kim Jong-il and the Looming Threat of North Korea'.
I guess the title gives you an idea about this guy's opinion which also seems to mirror some American experts as well.

Basically Becker says the guy isn't a nut case but instead has consolidated a power base against amazing odds and pushes his reforms by 'stealth', acting as a kind of 'Asian Gorbachev'. Yes he is a tyrant but a skillful one, presiding over what anyone in the world would conclude as the worst man-made catastrophe in modern history, including the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the excesses of the Soviets in the 1930s. Although not mentioned, I guess Becker would throw in the gas chambers of the Nazis in WWII?

Brainwashing seems to be an important component of the regime's control (what else is new?), with a Soviet diplomat in the North once calling Kim Il-Sung's rule a 'political Gestapo' (the present leader's illustrious father). But there were checks and balances of a sort in those days but when he died in 1994 and his son was handed the scepter of power, he transferred the country from an odious totalitarian regime into what Becker refers to as 'a Marxist Sun King' state that is ready to oversee an 'unparalleled orgy of extravagance and absolutism'. Wow! Sounds like this guy is having a good time!

It is also interesting to note that it is also 60 years ago, almost to the day, that in England, George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' was published (August 17th) for the first time and pigs starting chanting, "free and equal! free and equal, free and equal!". Yes folks, all animals are free and equal, but "Some animals are more equal than others". Or at least that is what the despot pig named Napoleon indicated to his fellow pigs as he rooted for power and pressed for more weapons and bigger walls. Funny how something as simple as a children's book parallels history.

The press is filled with stories about this North Korean 'dictorial pig' but he does like the finer things in life having built a stable of 100 imported limousines, entourages of women trained in 'pleasure groups' to service the leader sexually (rank has its privileges!), as well as having recently imported US wrestlers at a cost of $15 million to keep him entertained after his sexual antics (or during?). This guy knows how to live; all the while his people are starving and murdered babies are reported as being mixed with pork to eat. The SciFi flick Soylent Green had nothing on this guy, and now he has nukes! The winners write the history books but I wonder what will be the final chapter in this guy's book?

In any discussion about both Koreas today, one would have to wonder what would happen if they did both unite in a peaceful way with the south becoming the dominant power. Personally, I think many answers would most probably be found in an analysis of post Soviet East Germany. Having lived and worked in both the east and west of Germany, both during and after the Cold War, it seems to me that the reunification of the Koreas would be as Herculean as with the Germans, if not more so. As a note of historical timing, it is also interesting that it was also in August on the 23rd (in 1990), that the DDR president, Sabine Bergmann-Pohl declared the dissolution of the East Germany state. Seems a lot of people like to be get 'free' in August...

Korea today. A peninsula of absolute extremes to put it mildly where anything can happen and has and where a state of war still exists. It is a region armed to the teeth with the world's fifth largest army minutes away to the north and China, the world's largest army to the west. To the east is a country where 60 years ago nuclear weapons were dropped ending a world war, with unfathomable death and destruction as the outcome. Or as Oppenheimer once said, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." I know what the guy means...

Once again, how can you talk about Korea and not put China into the equation? China has always been an interest of mine and having lived in and out of Asia for nearly 15 years, even more so. China is the 800 pound gorilla that if uncaged, might make King Kong and his rampage seem like a stroll through the park. China is rattling their sabers over Taiwan again but in my humble opinion, this is nothing more than getting their people to externalize their problems (look there, not here), as there are a multitude of problems on the mainland and they are growing worse by the day. China, for a variety of complex reasons has expansionism on its mind and they view it as the necessity of survival as did the Japanese before them and as the US does today. (Might want to catch Brzezinski's book, "The Grand Chessboard - American Primacy and it's Geostrategic Imperatives" as a fun read as it has become the Bush boy's tutorial for a New World Order.)

Like everywhere else in the world, global warming and earth changes are making sweeping changes to the Chinese landscape. Water is a hyper-critical problem with their infrastructure programs to 'solve' it the largest civil works projects the earth has ever seen. The 3 Gorges Dam Project and start of the north/south canal/river interconnect program being the most recent. Some experts say that almost 30% of China is now dessert (the Gobi being the biggest) with over 200 million people on the move in search of basic needs, food and water. That is a lot of people!

Korea is an 'island' peninsula (you can only leave/enter the south by air or sea) but not isolated. It is sometimes a port in the storm, sometimes right in the middle. Since 1945's liberation its economic growth statistics are pretty impressive with GDP expanding 523-fold. Per capita gross national income has risen from $65 in 1955 to $14,162 in 2004. Exports in millions of dollars has increased from 28 in 1952 to 253,845 in 2004, a 9,066-fold increase. Inline with these numbers the population has increased from 20 million in 1948 to 48.3 in 2005.

They also emerged in the second quarter of 2005 as the world's top TV supplier, with its' electronics giants leading the pack in both revenue and unit sales. That is a lot of TVs as they grabbed 9.8 percent of the worldwide market distributed between their giants Samsung and its cross-town rival, LG Electronics. As I don't own a TV, I guess I didn't help out much with the stats did I?

Korea also shipped $253.8 billion worth of goods and services in 2004, maintaining its spot as the world's 12th largest exporter. Korean automakers produced 3.47 million units in 2004 and was the 6th largest car producer in the world. I guess the world needs a bunch of Hyundai cars don't they...

But it seems these stats might also indicate that Korea has climbed its mountain and is headed down the other side as their growth has started to fall with all indications pointing towards a continuing slide. The reasons vary, but the aging population combined with a lack of trained youth in technical skills and sciences are major contributing factors.

In these statistics, along with my travels out and about the region around Seoul, it strikes me how similar Korea is to Germany. Yes, I know Germany is in Europe (or as Rumsfeld recently said, the 'old Europe'), but it seems to me that whoever sketched out the 'grand plan' for the economies of Germany, Japan and Korea after WWII, there was a common base applied to all.

Paju New City I was recently told that Korea is about the size of Indiana and having nearly 50 million people jammed into that space with nowhere to go, one can understand the reason and need for the massive apartment projects around the nation referred to as 'new cities'. In the states, we attempted this with massive housing projects as well (such as in Chicago probably being the closest I have come across to the design and idea that exists here). It was also implemented extensively in the Soviet Empire as well with East Germany being a prime example of the implemented concept.

Unlike the horrible failure of the design in the US which turned into nothing more than crime ridden slums, it seems, at least from the outside looking in, that in Korea, the experiment is working. But than again, where and who are all these criminals that are being pardoned? Not everyone is an income tax cheat or a crooked politician. I suspect the truth of the experiment here is similar to some degree like in the states but here, everyone lives behind at least 3 locks on their door, with bars covering every possible opening and cameras scanning everywhere that isn't behind bars or chained down. Sounds like a good time to me...and they don't even have any terrorist!

Thank God for the numbers on the side of the buildings! Otherwise how would I find my way home when I'm drunk...or for that matter, sober.

What I can't get my head around however is that even though the construction continues at a torrid pace, with entire buildings being empty, the country has the lowest birth rate in the world and according to the experts, by 2018 will have the highest ratio of people over 65.

Sooooo.... the obvious question becomes who is going to buy and live in these megalithic housing estates? Old folks on social welfare? North Korean peasants after reunification? Korean/Americans visiting their old folks back home and needing a place to stay? Japanese investors needing a retirement home? One of the 28,000 Koreans living in London and fed up with subway and bus bombings? I just hope what I am seeing is not just another disaster in the making like which took place in Thailand in the 1990s and is taking place again there today.

Each building has a number with the numbering seeming to start with '101' and going into the hundreds. Elevators however seem to be missing the 4th floor as that appears to be an unlucky number here as 13 is in western societies. As you might suspect, depending on the age of the building, the designs are all the same, ranging from 15 to 24 floors. Some countries have forest, Korea has high rises. Some countries have the sound of chirping birds in the morning, these condos and apartments in the photo above have the sounds of light and heavy weapons firing in the morning. In 20 years, I suspect these projects will have the Korean equivalent word of 'slum' (if they don't already).

The transportation network is fantastic and getting better. It is also one of the least expensive things you can spend your money on and follows my rule that public transportation in Asia should be approximately $1 an hour. That rule of thumb has worked for me from Cambodia, to Thailand and now Korea. In some ways it is actually quite better in Korea than it has become in Germany, as Germany's public network has degenerated over the past decade, most probably due to the reunification costs with the East and the citizens becoming more affluent in the West (being able to buy cars and the gas to put in them).

One of many train stations being expanded.


Where are the pickup trucks?

But where are the pickup trucks? In American and Thailand it seems every second vehicle on the road is a pickup truck while in Germany and Korea, there are none! Why would 2 of the largest vehicle export economies of the world not build pickup trucks? Egos and education is why my friends!

You scratch your head and say, huh? Egos? Education? How could that be the reason? The answer lies in the 'perception' of who and what you are, and like everywhere else in the world, your car is a statement about who you are and what you do (or have done). In Southern California more so than anywhere in the world but try and watch a sporting event and not come to the conclusion that ego and sex are not important determinations in the 'car' you should choose.

American is a land of entrepreneurs, as is Thailand. Being an entrepreneur is something one wants to achieve even if education and corporate jobs are easy to obtain. Just ask Bill Gates or Thaksin Shinawatra. In Korea however, like in Germany, the countries are 'company towns' with an unwritten rule that anyone with intelligence and education would never work for themselves; they naturally land a good position with a large industrial company where they stay until they retire 30 years later. Siemens in Germany, Hyundai and Samsung in Korea are examples.

Now, back to pickup trucks. Pickup trucks in these societies would represent a vehicle where you haven't achieved success and have been forced to work for yourself (God forbid!). Even those that work for themselves in the form of 'tradesmen' don't drive pickup trucks, they drive cargo trucks and lorries designed only to be used on the job (and not as a family vehicle at home!). In other words, being an entrepreneur is a thing stupid people do and pulling up in a pickup truck as a 23 year old Korean man to pick up some long-haired beauty with a new nose job would be the sin of sins!

It is also interesting to note how many cars here in Korea are big and black with names donating power and prestige (Senator, Prince, Ambassador, etc.). Seems everyone wants to be a boss; or at least look like one. Dark windows are mandatory of course, and this is in a country where the sun hardly ever shines!

Those that do own their own companies however don't usually work in them. Language schools here are a classic example of this and the above thinking is a fundamental reason that there are SOOOOOOOO many problems with teachers and schools in Korea. Profit is the motivation for existence and getting more of it, at the expense of someone else foreign, is almost a game in exploitation.

Teaching in Korea

The reputation of the ESL industry in Korea has been poor (that is a politically correct word). So much so that back in 2003 the National Teachers Union of Ireland (a body representing nearly 10,000 fully trained professional teachers) issued a warning against its members traveling to Korea to find work. Citing the "overwhelming number of complaints routinely received by various Irish government departments from Irish teachers in connection with their experiences in this country... we feel unable to recommend it to our citizens as a safe or viable career option."

The report went on to say that in its view, the hagwon system especially is "endemically corrupt." Corrupt is a great word and it makes me wonder again about those 21.52 million pardons handed out since 1995 in a country whose population is only 48.3 million people (or 45 % of the population!)

This is an experience shared by all the Western governments of expatriate teachers in Korea and it seems unfortunately things have gotten even worse since 2003 according to recent articles.

The Internet is now littered with complaints and warnings by former teachers about the perils of pursuing a teaching career in Korea. There are six sites on the Web dedicated to the issue of "blacklisting" or warning teachers about hagwons, recruiters and owners among others. Compare that with Japan, which has an English teaching community of a similar size and history, yet not one dedicated blacklist site.

The Web sites of the Canadian and other embassies to Korea all warn their citizens of the perils which they may encounter upon accepting employment in Korea and these warnings usually occur in the first paragraph. Surprisingly, the Web sites of these embassies in Japan or China contain no such warning to ESL professionals....and Koreans still wonder why it is that the top talent and best trained teachers of the ESL industry choose to work in other Asian destinations, rather than come to Korea.

The root of the problem here is threefold according to some experts with the unhappiest teachers usually the most inexperienced and having no idea what to expect from a teaching career in Asia. There is also a huge "culture gap" between the standard manner in which Koreans do business or deal with employees, and the manner in which this is handled in the West. The other reason is the reputation for dishonesty and lack of fairplay that some Korean hagwon owners and some recruiters have made for themselves internationally. (Check this web site out if this issue concerns you: www.englishteachingkorea.com/forum or go to the classic site for jobs and issues at www.eslcafe.com )

Children here appear happy however. Everywhere they are smiling and happy and it does seem there is a period in their development that they are allowed to be just that, children. There is however a massive amount of pressure to excel at everything and anything and special education of all forms, all the time, is considered the norm. Maybe it is love but I suspect a lot has to do with the parent's perception that their children are their social security net/retirement when they themselves grow old. Quite a common viewpoint here in Asia unlike in the west.

The Country is getting old

Another interesting fact about Korea which is very similar to Germany but more like Italy statistically, is that Korea is considered an aging society and is expected to become an 'aged society' by 2018 (assuming we are all still around), meaning it will have the highest ratio of senior citizens aged 65 or older if the fertility rate does not improve. Last year, it was the world's lowest. Not sure what they are doing behind those bolted and locked closed doors while the kids are at the Internet dungeons but I guess they aren't having sex...

In parallel with the above statistics, South Korea also has the highest rate of deliveries by Caesarean section amongst OECD countries, a staggering 38.1 percent compared the second highest nation, the US, at 27.6 percent. (Most OECD nations range between 10-20 percent).

Reasons for this range from Korean women opt to conceive later in life and the doctors here make more money by doing a C-section as they get $920, which is more than double that of a normal delivery. Image that, hospitals and doctors more interested in money...

The government boys further state that, "The average number of children a woman in Korea had in a lifetime last year was 1.19, below the replacement rate of 2.1. Some experts warn that at such a rate, Asia's third-largest economy will become the world's most aged society..." I guess there is going to be even more golfers on the links in Pattaya now. I also offered several times to help with the fertility stats here but unfortunately no takers yet...

Quality and the Expense of Goods

It shocked me when I first arrived how expensive things were. Being on new turf, I gave it some time and went down the darkest allies and into the worse markets from Paju to Seoul, all to no avail. Things are just horribly expensive! And to make it worse, unlike in Germany where you pay high prices but get high quality, things sold here are of poor quality. On the average, I would say things are at least 300% higher than exact products in areas like Thailand and 200% higher than similar products in western countries including the US and Europe.

You might think that as an American I have been searching out things American's eat or want. Although you are correct to some degree, I can eat anything and like Kim Chi and Cho-bap (Korean word for Japanese Sushi) as much as the next Korean. Yes, a beer would be nice now and than as well as a bit of beef, but my oh my, just eating and buying groceries is an effort at juggling finances!

Now young children like their rice, Kim Chi and water for breakfast, which seems to be the stable diet here in my area, but I prefer something with a bit different like cereal now and again along with a bit of milk. A slice of bread with some butter and jam would taste pretty good as well. Let's see....loaf of bread is $2.60, milk is around $5 a gallon, a small tub of margarine is nearly $3 and the jam, $4! I can quickly figure out why Korean children eat rice and drink water for breakfast!

If you like your booze you better stay away as even if you drink at home alone, it is expensive. Beer from the market is near $2 a can. At the cheapest 'bar', you will find it will be a minimum of $3, with $6 closer to the norm. Walk into a place where they have ladies that serve you, you are looking at $20 to $30 for the pleasure of her pouring the 3 beers beers she sets in front of you. She of course has to have some with you, which naturally doubles the price again. The age old expression, 'You want to play, you have to pay!' is no truer than in Korea.

I also went out to obtain some electronics goods for my room and thinking this is Korea, being one of the largest electronics exporters in the world things had to be dirt cheap...right? Wrong! It seems if anything is cheap, it got exported and left in its place is a bunch of hyper-inflated trash. $80 for a radio with a CD player that looks like it will fall apart before you get it home? $1,300 for a computer I can buy anywhere else in the world for less than $500? Laptops for $1,000 that Dell sells for half that price? What's going on here? Why so expensive? Damn if I can figure it out unless monopolies control it all and competition is crushed...

The Internet

What is cheap however is the Internet. Dirt cheap and hyper fast. Getting better by the day and leading the world in bandwidth and innovative implementations, such as broadband wireless. Some say the Internet is nothing more than a pipeline to porn, I prefer to think of it as a highway to knowledge. Depends on you I guess.

Gaming centers are everywhere, and that is no exaggeration. Massive online gaming is what children do, as well as adults, and the centers (or dungeons if you prefer) are smoke filled, dark-lit, multi-media extravaganzas that as the children move from childhood into adulthood should be well prepared for similar gaming venues from Macau to Las Vegas.

This might also be a good time to finally admit that yes, Bart Simpson is my hero and he grew up here in Korea! "No way!", you say but yes folks, my good buddy Bart is partly animated here by Nelson Shin, a Korean-born American who is founder and president of of the Seoul-based Akom Production Co., as well as the director and producer of the new animated movie, "Empress Chung" which opened in South Korea on the 12th of August and in the North, on liberation day the 15th.
"Ay caramba!" dude.

The Korean Pastimes

Speaking of traveling, what is at the opposite ends of the spectrum in German and Korean culture is the prevalence of travel agencies. In Germany, they are everywhere. In Korea, they are nowhere. That pretty much sums it up. Koreas go on 'junkets' to places like Thailand for things people do when they go to Thailand (golfing right?) or to places where they can gamble and/or have sex. There are a lot of Koreans going to Cambodia and a lot more now in Thailand. Funny thing is, I never saw them at the temples of Angkor Wat although they landed there by the plane-fulls. I did however see a lot of them loading up girls into buses from the brothels outside Siem Reap however....

The Koreans like their golf and it is a national obsession, I guess like it is in Japan. Along with the massive apartment blocks in the new cities, as you scan the horizon around you, you would be hard pressed not to find the towering green mesh screens that indicate a driving range. Even golf shops (pro-shops?) are everywhere although, once again, it is just a business and like with the computer shop owners in Yongsan, few actually know anything about the product or service they are selling (as was the case back in the early 80s at the start of the PC revolution in the US).

An even though it is expensive, the men like to drink. In my little part of the world, both young and old do it frequently and is quite common to see staggering drunks everywhere, weekend or weekday. Seen more than the normal amount of fights you might expect with all this as well. Went to the market on an early Saturday morning and noticed 5 businesses with their shop windows and doors bashed in (was told it was the local mafia penalizing small entrepreneurs for not paying their protection money). Seems violence is just below the surface with many here, but although there are police (they seem to carry no guns), events are allowed to play out without any external interference from officials or bystanders.

If there is fight in the middle of an intersection between 4 boys over a girl with their van is parked in the middle of the intersection, let them fight it out until they conclude it. Watched it out my window on a Saturday night for at least half an hour until I got bored watching. Other motorist and neighbors just watched from a distance, impartial and non-emotional. I've seen better fights in my days but watching the people watch the fight is what really fascinated me. No emotion. Stone cold.

Although it is a crowded nation, you still have to adjust the rudeness that you are constantly faced with. It is nothing for men or women, young or old, to go to the front of whatever line you might be in, whether making a phone call, standing at Seoul Station for a train ticket or the checkout line at a grocery store. Sometimes it astounds me at how blatant the act is, and it seems to make no difference whether it is man or woman as both seem to do it with the same degree of frequency.

There are many stories I could tell about just how uncaring people seem to be for each other but one night's story seems to sum them all up.

As I was carrying down some bedroom furniture from the 12th floor of another hi-rise apartment building during a Friday evening, I exited the elevator on the ground level with my large, bulky mattress grasped firmly between me and my Korean helper.

A woman, well dressed, who saw us and was slightly in front of us, stopped dead center on the walkway and started to dial on her mobile phone. We couldn't move right or left and she refused to move. After nearly a minute of this game of 'I am more important than you', she finally stepped aside as I kept saying 'excuse me, excuse me!'.

Unbelievably, within seconds after moving past her, another woman rushed past me from the same hi-rise building in Ilsan dressed in a tennis outfit and carrying a tennis racket. As I watched her dash across the parking lot, she leaps into a 'mommy van' (as I call them) and quickly proceeds to pull down no less than 6 bicycles from the apartment bike rack she was pulled in next to. Didn't stop. She just kept on going.

I finished loading the mattress into the van and walked over to see what havoc she had wrought. Her front right bumper had managed to mangle the bikes pretty bad as she had been moving fairly fast when she exited the parking space and caught the first bike and pulled it into the other bikes.

I also observed another older lady on another day, well dressed and brimming with attitude about how important she thought she was, make a production of entering the train I was on, finding a seat and than proceed to place her large hand bag and on the seat next to her. In other words, stay away!

This train however is always full, with both young and old having to stand on the best of days. People walked up to her and were obviously asking her for the seat and only after some persistence did one lady finally manage to get her to remove the purse and let her sit down.

I did notice however the soldiers who are always on the train were the first to offer their seats to those that needed it, whether a 3 year old child or a 70 year old man. This was a constant no matter where or the time of day. Maybe there is hope?

Do you speak English?

That is another thing that fascinates me. I have gone to Yongsan just about every other weekend during my time here which is the one place one might think it would be easier to find someone that can converse in English with you about their computer, product or software. Whether they are too arrogant or too insecure or simply unable to speak English, there is ZERO effort to do so.

The one place and person who made every effort to communicate with me about her service she was rendering was the dry cleaning lady who took my laundry. She clearly told me it would be ready Tuesday and that it was '1000' and '200' although she meant 12,000, I understood her and greatly appreciated her effort. She also told me 'thank you' in English and 'to please come again' when I picked it up 3 days later. Wow! And this is in a community with no foreigners. Guess where I now take my laundry?

Another small thing but extremely interesting to me is the McDonalds at the main train station in Seoul (Seoul Station), has not a single sign or menu item in English, only Korean. The KFC and Burger King on the second level of the station do have their menus in English however. What is going with this?

There has to be an interesting story to this simple fact as this is a country that has embraced English like no other and is host to a huge American ex-pat community. On top of that, every other McDonalds I have ever visited, including the scores in Thailand, had their menus in the native language as well as English. Wonder what reason led to the ommittance of English as an option on the menus and signs here in Korea?

I never expect anyone to be able to speak my language but I do expect them to make an effort to communicate information when I am there to buy their product or partake in their service. Much of what can be communicated can be non-verbal such as the use of calculators, simply writing a number on a piece of paper or pointing to an item on the menu. The Thais understand this as well as the Turks. It seems the Germans and the Koreas at times have a hard time with this. Maybe we are all (Americans, Germans and Koreans) just a bunch of hard-headed, ego maniacs....

But we have no Bartender!

I remember walking into a 'jazz bar' on the 9th floor of an office complex in Ilsan on a hot summer Saturday night. I was thirsty and since I was with a lady, I was trying to show her a nice time. The place looked ornate, was huge, decorated to the nines and for Korea, had to have cost at least half a million dollars to put in place.

It was a bit early however and the sun was just setting and as I scanned my surroundings, I only detected one other man in a booth on the outside window. I chose a booth on the same wall and a nice looking lady came and dropped off a menu for us. It was extensive and reasonably priced for this type of venue. Drinks were what you might expect and even a decent meal or two at a reasonable price.

I ordered a couple of local beers to cool down from the days walking and mine went down pretty quick and smooth. My lady friend, after a couple of sips seemed not to really like hers so I offered to order a mix drink instead, of which there were some really yummy sounding concoctions in the menu on the table (which I had to almost fight the new male waiter to keep after he brought our first beers).

After scanning the menu a couple of times and thinking what would she like, I decided on the 'Sex on the Beach'. I rang the buzzer that seems to be on every table in Korea (I remember they tried this in America back in the 70s) to summon my waiter. He hops over like a bunny, of course absolutely unable to assimilate my desire that I want to order 2 of these drinks even as I point to the menu item and raise 2 fingers and point to her and I. The lady of course jumps in to 'save the day' on this horrific communication problem that is ensuing and it is then that I discover that there can be no cocktails as the bartender isn't here....and won't be for 2 weeks as he is on vacation (either there is no business and no one cares or there is and no one cares). Can you say, 'Deja Vu'? Had I just been teleported back to Germany where all work stops if the person who does that job is on vacation or sick? Like in Germany, why not get their 'boss' to do the job or find a temp? Yes, Alice there is another universe behind the looking glass...

Where is it all going?

Beats me. If I did however have to make an analysis at the drop of a hat, it would warn that China is an 800 pound gorilla about ready to be set from its cage. Their currency changes in recent weeks tied more to a basket of currencies than the US dollar is the beginning of this economic change. Korea has opted for industrialization but without a service economy, this could collapse overnight as it has done before in the US (New England several times with textiles and most recently with the mini-computer industry and DOD at the end of the cold war).

Personally I believe North Korea is far more dangerous than people are willing to admit or at least say in public. There can be no other reason for their self-imposed exile than control of their people for some endgame that seems to me to be extremely Draconian. These people aren't nuts, they are however people scheming towards a perceived goal. What exactly that goal is however is the 64 million dollar question. Personally, I don't think military action against the south is improbable and actually quite probable. Nukes can buy you a lot of legitimacy and get people to listen to you....from negotiations to blackmail. Only time will tell.

There was a recent James Bond movie with Pierce Brosnan as OO7 called
'Die Another Day' about a rogue North Korean regime and their desire to use terror weapons and tactics to achieve a political endgame. In this movie, like all movies, the good guys win and the bad guys loose. (Remember the winners write the history books..) Life however is not a Ronald Reagan movie and politics is played for keeps. The boys who are playing the game in Eurasia are playing for keeps as are the players here in East Asia. North Korea has an agenda and in my very humble opinion, from the outside looking in, it is very sinister and they will become pawns (maybe a bishop or knight now they have nukes) on the world's chess board. North Korea, like the fanatic Muslim suicide bomber is nothing more than an 'agent' for a bigger and more sophisticated player that uses fanatics as part of the end game. There players are not governments as one might expect, but transnational, for lack of a better word.

Iran is now in the news again and is part of a very complex equation. It is a wildcard that could plunge the world into a deep abyss. Pakistan continues to push their weapons programs and is in the news daily. China and Russia are as well. Who will align themselves with Iran (axis of evil) and who will align themselves with North Korea (also a member of this infamous group)?

The US is making efforts to assist everyone that surrounds China or can balance their expansion into becoming the 'other' global power. The US has also 'surrounded' Iran as well with its military deployments. China is a good bet (the only bet actually as Russia to too corrupt and bankrupt to matter) to balance US imperial expansionism in Eurasia but how and where does that leave South Korea? (You might want to read the not so new book "THE GRAND CHESSBOARD - American Primacy And It's Geostrategic Imperatives," by Zbigniew Brzezinski or see this little article for a bit of light reading OR see my article about China, the US and Cambodia. Up to you!)

That's a tough nut to be in the middle of in my opinion and if I was a South Korean political or industrial leader, I would be taking some of my eggs off the table and putting them into other baskets, say Thailand, the US or maybe even South America?

May the gods be with you,



The 'New Cities' of Korea


Ilsan
businesses



Geumchon train station.



Grand Department Store in Ilsan


A beautiful sculpture near the Grand Department Store in Ilsan



The apartment blocks of Ilsan


Apartment blocks of Geumchong


Geumchong train station


Geumchong train schedule


The train to Seoul, one hour away.


Office building reflections in Seoul.


Old and the new Seoul.


Entering Seoul by car.


City digital media center for youth in Seoul.


Seoul Station.


Seoul Station.


Subway station map.


Yongsan Electronics Market. The old building.


Yongsan Electronics Market.


Yongsan Train Station.


Seoul Station.



Getting fresh water from a natural spring on an early Sunday morning.

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