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Updated: 2017-11-19T00:23:11.758-05:00


Best K-Pop Idol Songs of 2007-2017, and an Announcement


Yes, I know I've been really bad with my list of 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists. What began as a result of a drunken rager at a noraebang in 2010 has grown into one of the most frequently cited sources for Korean pop music history, except seven years later, I still have six more artists to go. As an apology, I give you something awesome.

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It is the 120 best K-pop idol songs from the last ten years, selected by music critic Youngdae Kim. Kim is a man who knows what he's talking about. He was the moderator for the online group that first introduced hip hop to Korea in the early 1990s, and he also wrote the defining book on the history of Korean hip hop. (Here is my post on Korean hip hop that borrows his analysis.) The video is in four parts, and I provided the English subtitles for Parts 3 and 4.

And now, an announcement! TK is very excited to announce that he's been working with Youngdae Kim for the past year to write a book on K-pop history. Although not exactly the same, the book will be an expanded version of this blog's 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists series, but with Kim's more expert insight. The manuscript is progressing smoothly, and we are shooting for the book to be ready by late next year.

Hopefully this will make up for the fact that I've been slow with the "50 Most Influential" list. In the meantime, keep an eye out for more collaboration projects like this one.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Korea's Alt-Right, and How to Fight the Ones at Home


Dear Korean,I was shocked by this piece of news, and I still have a hard time getting my head around why it wasn't bigger news worldwide. Can you explain?LaszloYou might think a country that deposed a president who took directions from a shaman’s daughter has seen just about everything there is to see. But as the new administration is digging through the confidential files of the conservative Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak administrations, the scandal that is emerging may be much more jaw-dropping. I.Inside Korea's National Assembly(source)As long as South Korea existed, its politics had a division of the right-wing and the left-wing. By the early 2000s, however, the right-wing in South Korea seemed like old news, in a literal sense. Much of its subscribers were old people whose memories of the Korean War, communist terror and desperate hunger dominated their political decisions. As they did not grow up with democracy, they worshiped South Korea’s military dictators—foremost of whom was Park Chung-hee, who ruled for nearly two decades from the 1960s to 70s—as they would a king. In this sense, they could not possibly called “conservatives,” since the term, in its strictest interpretation, presumes a liberal democratic system. “Fascists” would be the more apt description. Korea’s right-wing was contemptuous of democracy, and favored dictatorship. They favored jailing “communists,” a catch-all stand-in term for any political dissident. But in the 21st century, the right-wing seemed like an old news. Twenty years after the peaceful democratization of 1987, it seemed that liberal democracy was the settled practice in Korea. Although the right-wing still wielded considerable force, they were aging and would fade away—or so Korea’s liberals thought. The liberals were riding high from the two consecutive terms of liberal presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, from 1997 to 2007. Of course, conservatism would continue to exist, but it would exist in a form that is more common in the advanced democracies: along the lines of the philosophical difference in terms of the proper role of the government, arguing over the proper size of the government, the appropriate level of taxation, regulation of corporations and redistributive policies, and so on. Even when the conservative Lee Myung-bak won the presidency in 2007, the liberals’ expectations for democratic governance continued.It’s fair to say that Korea’s liberals were totally unprepared for what awaited them.(More after the jump.)Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at, the most wired city in the world(source)One cannot understand today’s Korea without understanding the internet. Until the 21st century, Korea was a middling, anonymous country. When placed among the numerous names of the world’s countries, Korea was a blank: not rich enough to command attention, not poor enough to arouse sympathy. Even the most seminal event in modern Korean history—the Korean War—is considered the “forgotten war.” Internet is what propelled Korea into the forefront of the world in the 21st century. Having seen the potential of high-speed internet earlier than just about any other world leader, Kim Dae-jung embarked on a massive project to equip the whole Korea with fiber optic cables during his term. This is perhaps the most underrated achievement of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. The result is the Korea of today: world leader in smartphone technology, cities constructed as a technological marvel, a major generator of the popular culture optimized for the digital age.So it shouldn’t be surprising the new breed of Korea’s young right-wing rose through the internet. What was surprising was just how retro these young right-wingers were.The “new right wing” traces its origin to the website called DC Inside. Established in 1999, it was originally a message board to discuss the latest trend in digital cameras. (The site’s name means “digital camera[...]

Rice and Banchan - a Love Affair


It's been a while, hasn't it? One of the reasons why posting has been slow on AAK! was because TK was in Seoul last month for work. While I was there, I got to try some of the restaurants in Seoul that just earned their stars from the Michelin Guide, which got me thinking about the essence of Korean food. Below, I'll share with you my experience at those restaurants and my thoughts. This time, I tried my hand at a magazine-style writing.*                  *                 *I.   At a Michelin Three-Star Restaurant What is Korean food? I was at Gaon, a fine dining restaurant in the affluent Sinsa-dong district in Seoul, when I faced this question. Specifically, the question was posed as a piece of fish. The fish, the fourth course served in Gaon’s prix-fixe menu, was a roasted piece of geumtae from the southern island of Jeju. The fish is also known as blackthroat seaperch, or as nodoguro in Japan. Like all the dishes before it, this piece of geumtae was fantastic. The crispy fried skin was like a golden piece of toast; underneath was the fatty meat that retained its shape and texture for a second in the mouth before melting away. “Tastes like a Michelin star,” my dinner companion joked. Yet something about the fish—a Korean fish, served at a Korean restaurant—bothered me. Roasted geumtae from Gaon(Source: myself)I had high hopes for Gaon. The restaurant is run by KwangJuYo company, a guardian of various Korean traditions. KwangJuYo began in 1963 as a pottery company, reviving the fine chinaware that used to be produced for the Joseon Dynasty kings. KwangJuYo is also known for their brand of traditional soju called Hwayo, which puts to shame the cheap, aspartame-laced imposters in green bottles. Gaon is KwangJuYo’s flagship restaurant. When the Michelin Guide came to Seoul for the first time in April 2017, the French reviewers awarded Gaon with three stars, the guide’s highest distinction. Gaon was one of only two restaurants in Seoul that earned three Michelin stars.(More after the jump.)Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at’s service and atmosphere were impeccable. The restaurant offered a Hwayo pairing with the food, which my dinner companion and I gladly chose over the wine pairing. The KwangJuYo porcelain graced both the wall and the table, as the food was served on the in-house dinnerware. The prix-fixe course began with five types of amuse-bouche, all made with traditional Korean ingredients like minari (water parsley,) uni wrapped in crispy seaweed, beef tartare flavored with sesame oil. After a soothing round of corn porridge, a cold crab meat salad came, followed by the most perfectly cooked bit of roasted abalone. Then came the fish, delicious and nagging. In fact, the nagging feeling had been with me since the crab meat salad. But what could it be? This was a gorgeous dish. It was so good, that it could appear in any fine New York restaurant and earn rave reviews … Eureka. The thought of the land distant from Seoul made me realize what has been bothering me: this is the first time in my life, made up of 17 years in Korea and 20 years in the United States, in which I am eating a Korean meal and ate a cooked fish without rice. With soju-fueled indignation, I blurted out: “This fish is banchan. Where is the rice?” II.   Banchan, and the Essence of the Korean Style of Eating If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan. Before you receive what you ordered—sometimes, before you order anything at all—an array of dishes come in small plates. One of them, without fail, is kimchi. Others can be meat, fish or vegetables. They can be raw, cooked, tossed, pickled, braised, fermented. Those are banchan: literally, “companion to rice.” Eating food with carbohydrates is hardly unique to Koreans. Nor is eating food with rice,[...]

Book Review: Seoul Man by Frank Ahrens (2016)


(Disclosure:  I received a review copy of the book, and Frank and I met in person.)Hyundai Motor, of South Korea, is the world's fourth largest automobile manufacturer by the number of vehicles manufactured. The foregoing sentence is simultaneously mundane and incredible. Mundane, because it is such an obvious fact of life that is clearly visible to us. Hyundai and Kia cars are a common sight no matter where you live in the world--Asia, Europe, North America, South America, or Africa. Yet it is also incredible, when you consider the history of the companies with which Hyundai rubs its shoulders. Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 in the United States, which was then already the world's foremost economy by a wide margin. Renault was founded in 1899 in France. Fiat, also in 1899 in Italy. Hyundai, in contrast, was founded in 1963, when South Korea's per capita GDP was less than $150. Yet today, Hyundai outsells all of Ford, Fiat and Renault. In fact, Hyundai manufactures more cars than Fiat and Renault combined.The story of Hyundai's growth is commonly told in tandem with the account of the marvelous growth that South Korea experienced post-Korean War. But the less frequently told part of the story is that, actually, the story has two stages. South Korea and its stalwart corporations reached middle-income by mid-1990s. The country was prosperous, but was not exactly world-leading. For much the 1990s, South Korea was one of the mass of countries that did not attract much attention--not poor and starving enough to arouse humanitarian concerns, and not rich or glamorous enough to inspire admiration.But since the late 1990s, South Korea's corporations--at least those that survived the painful adjustment occasioned by the East Asian Financial Crisis in 1997--went to another level. Rather than being stuck at the "middle income trap," South Korea hit escape velocity. Its foremost corporations rose to the level reserved for the world's very best. Today, Samsung Electronics is the only meaningful challenger to Apple's iPhone juggernaut, and Hyundai only trails Toyota and Volkswagen in the number of cars manufactured per year. (Hyundai also trails General Motors if you include the production by SAIC, GM's Chinese joint venture.)This part of South Korea's story deserves to be told more. Marginal improvement always gets progressively more difficult. Seeing from the ground level, the gap between "rudimentary" and "pretty good" may seem greater than the same between "pretty good" and "among the best." The differential in skill between hoopers at the local playground and a bench warmer for an NBA team is much greater than the differential between the bench warmer and an NBA starter, and much, much greater than that between an NBA starter and the likes of Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. But the effort it takes to go from an NBA starter to an MVP-caliber player is no less than the effort it takes for a regular person to become an NBA bench warmer. In fact, "effort" might not even be the right word, for it implies the continuation of the same path, only with more intensity. Often, it requires a complete re-definition of self for a player to make the leap and reach the next level. Same is true with Hyundai. Hyundai Motor could have been another Skoda Auto or Tata Motors--a solid carmaker that does well enough domestically or within its region--and it still would have been considered a success. But Hyundai did much better. How? Frank Ahrens answers that question in his book Seoul Man, which makes it a unique read among books about Korea in English.(More after the jump.)Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at on in the book, we learn that Ahrens had been a journalist for the Washington Post for 18 years when he decided to make a career change. His wife's new job as a State Department official took his sights abroad--to Seoul, as a public relations executive for Hyunda[...]

On Cultural Appropriation, One More Time


(source)I wrote about cultural appropriation in an older post, which contains essentially all of my thoughts on the topic. But considering how cultural appropriation continues to appear in the popular conversation, I thought I would give it another round. I want to focus on two issues: (a) the harm of cultural appropriation, and (b) the reason why people are having a hard time understanding why cultural appropriation is harmful.Cultural appropriation is a real and serious concept, in that it describes a phenomenon that causes a real and serious harm. Cultural appropriation reduces cultural artifacts to a prop, which in turn reduces the people of that culture into a prop also. Cultural appropriation is not the same thing as cultural exchange, or being influenced by another culture. In a very real sense, cultural appropriation is stealing, as is clearly implied from the word “appropriation.”What precisely is the thing being stolen when we speak of cultural appropriation? Detractors are quick to argue that no one owns culture, and no one can. But that is a crabbed view of what “ownership” can mean. Of course, no one owns culture like one owns property—say, a car. Ownership of a car, or any other property, is a legal right. A piece of paper with legal significance establishes your ownership of your car. By owning your car, you can exclude me from using your car. If I used your car without the legal right to do so—that is, if I appropriated your car—the force of the law would apply to me. You could sue for any damage I caused to the car, or you could call the police to come after me and send me to jail. But property ownership is not the only kind of ownership that exists, for humans own many things beyond property. Chief among them is agency, the power to define one’s own identity. Your name, for example, is an artifact of your agency. It is a word that defines your identity. Yet you do not own your name like you would own your car. Unless you undergo the process of turning your name into some type of property—for example, by using your name as a registered trademark—you have no legal protection over the word that you use as your name. You have no right to exclude the use of your name. (If you are one of the millions of American men named “Michael,” you cannot prohibit anyone from naming your child “Michael.”) You cannot sue someone else who has the same name as yours, nor can you call the police over the name sameness.Yet the lack of such legal protections does not make your name any less your name. When someone takes away your name—when someone appropriates it—the violence involved in such a taking is obvious. It is no surprise that bullying usually begins with name-calling, an act of replacing your name with another word. The replacement word need not even be derogatory; it merely needs to be arbitrary enough to show that you did not choose the replacement word. NBA player Jeremy Lin, for example, recounted how fans of the opposing team used to taunt him by calling him “chicken fried rice.” The term “chicken fried rice,” standing alone, is far from offensive; it is a delicious dish enjoyed by billions around the world. But obviously, the racist taunters of Jeremy Lin were not using the term “chicken fried rice” as a word that meant what it said. Rather, they were using the term as an arbitrary marker of their racism. Because Lin is Chinese, bullies took away his name in favor of an arbitrary Chinese dish. Jeremy Lin’s name, his identity, was appropriated, in favor of a random ethnic marker.(More after the jump.)Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at appropriation as a theft is easier to understand if you understand culture to be an integral part of human identity, just like a name is. Cultural appropriation is stealing in that the appropriator takes away a culture, distorts it, and redefines it in a way that redefine[...]

Once Again: K-pop is Not a Genre


TK is happy to report that nearly all of the people who engage K-pop seriously--such as writers and journalists about the topic--generally agreed with my post that argued K-pop is not a genre. (There was one exception, whose objections I will address below.) But there were a number of silly responses about this point, so here is another try.A different way to framed this debate is: is the term "k-pop" a descriptor or a term of art? In my view, "k-pop" is a descriptor, while a number of people insist "k-pop" is a term of art that denotes a concept. And they are wrong.A descriptor accepts the plain meaning of the word. For example, unless there is additional context (more on this later,) the words "a brown dog" are a descriptor, indicating a canine that is brown in color. If a person told you (again, without additional context) that "I just saw a brown dog," something along the lines of the following images should pop up in your mind:On the other hand, if this kind of image pops in your head...... then, there is something wrong with you, because this is an image of a white cat. No matter how you wish it to be, "brown" does not mean "white," and "dog" does not mean "cat."This is not a trivial point. In the previous post, I wrote: "In our current, "post-truth" world, it is more important than ever to insist that words must mean what they say." I did not write those words as a gag; it is my sincerely, fervently held belief that words must mean what they say, because the easiest way to lie is to pretend words mean something other than what they say. This kind of lie corrupts our thought process and pushes us into taking actions that we otherwise would not take. This is the central insight of George Orwell's famous essay, Politics and the English Language:"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."This insight was what drove Orwell's dystopian classic 1984, set in a world in which war is peace, freedom is slavery, and two plus two is five. A world not unlike our current world, in which the head of the state of the United States of America would blatantly lies about what is plainly untrue--such as the crowd size for his inauguration--and his followers buy into this bullshit rather than believing their own eyes.So. The word "K-pop" must mean what it says. "K" obviously stands for "Korea," and "pop" obviously stands for "pop music." This meaning must hold, unless... "k-pop" is a term of art, rather than a descriptor. And my point is: "K-pop" cannot be anything other than "popular music of Korea," because it is not a term of art.(More after the jump.)Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at*                     *                      *How do we know the term "K-pop" is not a term of art? Because a term of art has boundaries. Each term of art--if it truly is a term of art--denotes a specific concept. When people use a term of art, they are drawing mental boundaries, such that if a thing falls within the boundary, the term of art describes that thing. And if a thing falls outside of the boundary, the term of art cannot describe that thing.People usually draw these boundaries in some combination of the following three ways:  (1) identifying the key characteristics of the concept; (2) identifying archetypical examples of the things that fall into the concept, and; (3) identifying archetypical examples of things tha[...]

K-Pop is Not a Genre


[Before we begin, a quick note. TK is so happy to be finished with writing about Korean politics for now. Let's talk about more interesting things, like music! TK might just stick with writing about music for the next several months. Stay tuned...]Poster from K-pop Night Out showcasefrom SXSW 2014. Now hanging on my office wall.The point of this post is simple: "K-pop" is neither a genre nor a style. If you think otherwise, you are wrong. The rest of this post will discuss why you're wrong.To be fair to you who think otherwise, I'll say this: a lot of people think like you. Jaden Smith, for example, seems to think K-pop is a genre or a style.And Yes I Will Be Dropping A K Pop Single In The Next 4 Months.— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) April 20, 2017But you are still wrong. "K-pop" is a generic term that means absolutely nothing more than "popular music of Korea." If you ever thought about the term "K-pop" rigorously, and thought hard about the kinds of music and the kinds of artists the term covers, you will find that it cannot possibly denote a genre or a style.To start, the simplest overview of musical styles that fall under the label "K-pop" should make clear that "K-pop" does not refer to a musical genre. No one disputes that IU, BTS and FT Island are "K-pop artists," but musically, they share nothing in common. IU sings mostly standard pop, BTS performs mostly hip hop numbers, and FT Island, light rock. The commonality among IU, BTS and FT Island is not, and cannot be, music. Their only commonality is that they all perform popular music of Korea.Is "K-pop" a style then? A common alternative definition of K-pop goes roughly like this: "highly processed but easy-to-listen music, composed and choreographed by professional management companies, performed by beautiful young men or women groomed to become pop stars by the said management companies." But this definition is also wrong.Again, just a few moments of thought are all you need to see why this definition is wrong. First of all, the alternative definition does not actually define anything that did not exist previously. Identifying young talents and fastidiously grooming them to become pop stars have been one of the basic business strategies in pop music as long as there was such a thing as pop music. Motown in the 1960s was famous for it. The only possible distinction between the "K-pop" mode of production and "Motown" mode of production is... K-pop is from Korea. Once again, we return to the plain truth: the heart of the term "K-pop" is the fact that it is music of Korea.(More after the jump.)Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at*                *                 *In our current, "post-truth" world, it is more important than ever to insist that words must mean what they say. "K-pop" plainly means "pop music of Korea," because "K" obviously stands for "Korea," and "pop" obviously stands for "pop music." Q.E.D. And in fact, that is exactly how the term was used when it first entered the English language. Most English speakers--i.e., non-Koreans--encountered pop music from Korea for the first time in the early 2000s, and called such music "K-pop." The term was essentially the equivalent of gayo [가요], the word Koreans use to denote popular music generally, without reference to any genre, style or era.In the early 2000s, virtually all Korean pop music that was available internationally were highly processed music performed by beautiful young men and women--which is why the alternate, and wrong, definition lives on to this day. But it is important to understand that the term "K-pop" was never used with any rigor. We know "K-pop" cannot mean "idol pop"--which is the correct term for describing highly processed music performed by beautiful young people--because there has been absol[...]

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: III. The Candidates


[See Part I of this series here][See Part II of this series here]Here we are, the grand conclusion of the viewer's guide for South Korean politics. Part III of this series will cover everyone's favorite event in politics--the horse-racing takes on the presidential election. This election features the total of 15 candidates, but we will only cover the five presidential candidates who are polling over 1 percent. In order of polling numbers, the candidates are: Moon Jae-in, Ahn Cheol-soo, Hong Joon-pyo, Shim Sang-jeong and Yoo Seung-min. These five candidates represent the presidential candidates for the five largest political parties in Korea. Under Korea's election regulations, each candidate is assigned a number in accordance with the number of National Assembly seats belonging to the candidate's party. This post will discuss the candidates in that order also, although Moon Jae-in (number 1) and Ahn Cheol-soo (number 3) are the two front runners. All the pictures of the candidates are the official campaign posters for this election, the very same posters are plastered all over Korea right now.Full disclosure: although I am not eligible to vote in South Korea, I generally support Moon Jae-in. 1.  MOON JAE-IN [문재인][Read this blog's coverage of Moon Jae-in for 2012 election here]Slogan:  "Restoring the Country; the Dependable President"(source)Born:  January 24, 1953 (64 years old) in Geoje, a southeastern island near Busan, to North Korean parents who escaped the war.Party Affiliation:  Democratic Party [더불어민주당]Ideological Position:  Mainstream liberal / center-leftCurrent Polling:  Around 40-44 percent in a five-way race.Before Politics:  Moon Jae-in was a law student and activist who fought against the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. He learned that he passed the bar while being in prison for protesting. As an attorney, Moon litigated against the dictatorship along with his law firm partner Roh Moo-hyun.As a Politician:  When his former law firm partner Roh Moo-hyun became the president, Moon entered politics and became Roh's chief of staff. Because of this beginning, Moon Jae-in has been strongly associated with Roh Moo-hyun's legacy, for better or for worse. Although Moon returned to his law practice after the Roh administration ended in 2007, he came back to politics after Roh committed suicide in 2009 amid a bribery investigation. Since then, Moon served as a National Assembly Member and the Chair of the Democratic United Party, which later became New Politics Alliance for Democracy and then again became the Democratic Party.Moon Jae-in is considered level-headed and cerebral. Although he is not exactly a charismatic speaker, he has a passionate following of liberal voters who are galvanized by memories of Roh Moo-hyun, whom they consider to be driven to suicide because of the witch hunt conducted by the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. Moon is also a relentless inside baseball-type politician who either transformed the Democratic Party into a party of professional expertise and meritocracy while repudiating patronage and machine politics (if you take the kindly view,) or into a party of pro-Moon Jae-in loyalists who would faithfully execute his goals (if you take the cynical view.)Major Campaign Promises:  810,000 new jobs in public sector, such as police, healthcare and other health and safety personnel; transparent presidency and government; chaebol reform for anti-corruption.He Will Win If:  ... he hangs on. Moon Jae-in has always led the polls for the presidential race, sometimes by an overwhelming margin. He lost in a close race in the 2012 election, whose final margin was 51.6 percent to 48 percent. Moon still retains most of that 48 percent of the voters who are eager for a do-over. Meanwhile, his conservative/centrist opponents are[...]

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: II. The Parties


[See Part I of this series here]The viewer's guide for South Korean politics continues! Part II of this series will take a look at South Korea's political parties and what they stand for.Now is a tricky time to write this post, because political parties in South Korea are going through a once-a-generation level of realignment. For the most part, the history of South Korean democracy had two major parties--conservative and liberal--with some minor parties appearing here and there. But the historic impeachment and removal of Park Geun-hye shook up the political picture in Korea like no other recent events.Given this, the best way to understand where South Korea's political parties stand is to look at Korea's history of political parties, identify the major strands that flow through, and see how those strands match up with each party.So here we go.Super Basic StuffThe National Assembly Hall in Seoul(source)South Korea's democracy began in 1987. South Korean president serves a single five-year term.Korea's legislature is called the National Assembly. It is a unicameral body with 300 National Assembly Members. The entire National Assembly goes through an election every four years. For the National Assembly election, a South Korean voter casts two ballots: one vote for her geographical district, and one vote for the party she supports. This leads to two classes of Assembly Members: 253 "regional members," and 47 "national members." The "district" votes are counted up and produce the regional members, who are the winners of each geographical district. (The election for regional members is a single-winner, first-past-the-post.) The "party" votes are counted up, and each party receives a National Assembly seat based on the proportion of the party votes it received. (For example, if a Party X receives around 50% of the "party" votes, Party X takes either 23 or 24 seats allotted for national members.) In Korea, being a meaningful political party means having at least one seat in the National Assembly. (Thus, this post will not discuss Korean political parties that have no legislative representation, such as the Labor Party or the Green Party.) Being a major political party usually means having more than 20 seats, because the National Assembly Act sets the minimum of 20 Assembly Members to form a "negotiation group," which can receive greater budget assistance, have a say in committee assignments, etc.By this standard, South Korea right now has four major parties and two minor parties. From the most conservative to the most liberal, the four major parties are:  Liberty Korea Party (93 seats in the Assembly); Bareun Party (33 seats); the People's Party (40 seats); the Democratic Party (119 seats.) Justice Party has six seats in the National Assembly, and Saenuri Party has one seat. There are seven independent Members.Having six parties being represented in the National Assembly is highly unusual. For most of South Korea's history, the National Assembly only had two major parties: one conservative, one liberal. This was the case as recently as early 2016, as the Liberty Korea Party, Bareun Party and Saenuri Party formed the single major conservative party (called Saenuri Party,) while the Democratic Party and the People's Party were the single major liberal party (called New Politics Alliance for Democracy.)So how did we get here?(More after the jump.)Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at Quick History of Korean DemocracyWhen studying Korean political parties, it is better not to get hung up on the actual names of the parties--because those names change constantly. A political party in Korea sometimes changes its name after a scandal, to demonstrate to the public that it is a new and different entity. (It fools no one, but they do it anyway.) A political par[...]

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: I. The Lay of the Land


Dear Korean,I know there is a conservative-liberal spectrum in Korean politics, but I have also read that conservativism/liberalism in Korea are not easily relatable to conservativism / liberalism in America. What are the major issues, and where do the different political parties in Korea come down on the major issues? I am soon-to-be a Korean citizen, but my Korean is terrible (I am only getting away with this because I am a Korean-American athlete that they want for their Pyeonchang team, so I am on the "special" citizenship track). I am very politically engaged in the US, but now that I am in Korea, I am trying to figure out WTF is going on here, and it isn't easy! Randi The RingerAsk a Korean! has received a lot of questions from a lot of cool people, but this is the first time that the blog received a question from an Olympic athlete! With the bizarre Choi Soon-sil scandal, people are suddenly more interested in Korean politics, as the presidential election is going to be held in a little more than a month. For those who are coming to see South Korean politics for the first time, TK prepared a three-part Viewer's Guide. Part I will discuss the basic lay of the political land in Korea; Part II is a brief history of South Korean politics that explains the status of different political parties today, and; Part III will be an overview of the major presidential candidates, their stance on issues and the electoral challenges they face.So here we go with Part I - the basic political landscape in South Korea.*                   *                    *The questioner Randi correctly noted two important points about Korean politics: (1) it has a conservative-liberal spectrum, but; (2) the spectrum is not the same as the conservative-liberal spectrum in the U.S., or in any other country for that matter. Of course, this is to be expected, because obviously, different countries have different political concerns. It would be ignorant and self-centered to expect that Korea's ideological spectrum would run on the same axis as any other country's.Many of political issues that form a dividing line in the U.S. do not in Korea, either because Koreans simply live in a different environment or because there is a broad social consensus over them already. Before we cover the issues that do form the fault lines in Korean politics, let's go over some of the issues that don't.Issues that Don't Really Arise in KoreaThese are the issues that rarely get raised in Korean politics, because not enough number of Koreans deal with these issues for them to become a political topic. Clearly, this list is not to say that these issues are not important; rather, it is only to say that these issues are not front and center in politics in Korea.- Racism.   There are now more than a million non-ethnic Koreans living in Korea, and the number is increasing rapidly. But so far, racial discrimination (which is very real and very pernicious) against ethnic minorities in Korea is not a big topic, because few Koreans ever interact with a non-Korean on a regular basis.- Immigration.  Same as above. South Korea has a fairly restrictive immigration policy, and few bother to opine whether Korea needs more or less immigrants than it currently has. Although there is some low-level grumblings about how, for example, the immigrants from China are committing crimes in certain parts of Seoul, immigration policy overall is not a part of national politics.- Terrorism (except those from North Korea).  If you exclude the attacks by North Korea, and isolated incidents of South Korean citizens finding themselves in dangerous parts of the world, South Korea has never experienced a terrorist attack. So Koreans simply don[...]

The Bigotry Against Korean Democracy


Candlelight Protest, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd estimated to be ~1 million.(source)The impeachment and removal of former president Park Geun-hye is a stunning triumph of democracy: an illiberal and anti-democratic president is taken down peacefully, in an orderly manner, pursuant to the rule of law. And for the most part, it has been received as such. Yet there have been a small group of critics who insist on spitting on this achievement. Now, I respect differences in opinion if the differing opinion derives from a solid understanding of facts on the ground. But no—not these people. They uniformly advance two bits of criticism: (1) the impeachment process ignored proper procedure, because; (2) the Korean public formed a mob that intimidated the politicians and overrode the democratic process. These two arguments only reveal their proponents’ ignorance of Korea’s constitutional structure, and the actual events on the ground during the 17 weeks of candlelight protests. The two most prominent examples of these critics are Michael Breen and Euny Hong, who make their case in a similar manner. Breen, on the Atlantic, opened by questioning the impeachment procedure:Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung Mi said, her court building ringed by riot police behind a wall of police buses that held back supporters of the embattled president. “Her violations of the Constitution and the law are a betrayal of the people’s trust and cannot be tolerated.” If this seems a little vague, it gets more so. Hearings by the court, another series of proceedings by the National Assembly that impeached her, and a 70-day investigation by a special prosecutor, have determined that Choi Soon Sil was indeed sent presidential speeches to edit. But none of these bodies appears to have established what makes this an impeachable offense.A New Test for South Korea's Young Democracy [The Atlantic]Similarly, Euny Hong wrote:By US legal standards, Park's impeachment is peculiar in that she was ousted before even being fully investigated. Even the special prosecutors making the case against Park reportedly claimed they didn't have time to complete the inquiry and were denied an extension. (…) Though a Korean prosecutor alleged that Park had knowledge of this—and she may well have—what is significant is that the impeachment was pushed through before the conclusion of the investigation.The President Who Got Impeached for Being Embarrassing [CNN]Both of these arguments are simply ignorant about what actually happened as a matter of law. Breen’s claim that the pronouncement by Acting Chief Justice Lee was “vague” is pure nonsense, when the quoted sentence comes at the end of a rigorously written court opinion. If one bothered to read the entire impeachment opinion—which I translated in this post, by the way—it is impossible for one to conclude that the Constitutional Court have not “established what makes this an impeachable offense.” The Constitutional Court considered four arguments in favor of removal, and found three—abuse of authority of appoint public official, infringement of freedom of press, and violation of the duty to exercise due diligence as a public official—were not enough to support removal. The court, however, found Park’s use of presidential power to assist Choi Soon-sil’s private profiteering does not only violate the constitution and the law, but also seriously enough such that removal from office is warranted. All of this is clearly spelled out in the opinion; none of this is vague.(More after the jump.)Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at’s argument is even stupider—in fact, it is one of those sentences that are so stupid that you would be at a loss figuring out just where to start. ([...]

The Impeachment Opinion, Annotated


Acting Chief Justice Lee Jeong-mi reads the opinion(source)Koreans did it. They impeached their corrupt and incompetent president, and the Constitutional Court sustained the impeachment to remove her from the office. It is a stunning triumph for Korea's democracy. The crowning moment of the triumph, of course, is when the Constitutional Court announced that Park Geun-hye was removed from the office. The moment was capped by a 20-minute reading of the court's opinion from the bench by Acting Chief Justice Lee Jeong-mi.The court's opinion will not simply go down in Korean history, but in the history of world democracy as an exemplar of how an illiberal and anti-democratic president is to be taken down peacefully, in an orderly manner, pursuant to the rule of law. In other words: it deserves to be shared with the world immediately. The Constitutional Court usually provides an official translated version of its most important opinions, but the translation process usually takes months. So--I prepared a translated version of the court's opinion, with annotations for those who are not familiar with Korea's constitutional structure. Several caveats apply. First, and obviously, I did the translation myself and this translation is absolutely not official. Second, because I am not an attorney trained in Korean law, I may have gotten certain legal terms of art wrong. (However, because I am a lawyer and encounter Korean law frequently, my translation should be better than ones done by non-lawyers.) Third, the opinion translated below is the version that was read from the bench on March 10, 2017. Often, the court uses an abbreviated version of the opinion to read from the bench, and produce the full opinion later on its website. Because the full opinion is not yet available, I translated the bench opinion.The original bench opinion is available here. Off we go, after the jump.Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at translated opinion is produced below. Important passages are highlighted in blue, followed by TK's annotation in bold.*                              *                              *We will begin delivering the court's decision on 2016 heon-na 1, the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Before giving the decision, we wish to remark on the progress of this case. In the past 90 days, we justices have given our all to resolve this case fairly and expeditiously. We believe that the Korean people have spent a time of much deliberation and agony, just as much as this panel. Since December 9 of last year when this case was filed, we justices met for deliberation for 60 days, or every day except weekends. There is no item in hearing the trial or the decision that did not undergo the discussion involving every one of the justices. [TK:  It is unusual for the Constitutional Court to preface its opinion in this manner. But clearly, the court gave this extra statement because it understood how important this case was.]We have held three hearings for trial preparation, and 17 hearings for oral arguments. In the process, we carefully listened to the arguments by the impeachment committee and the counsels for each side, as well as 174 documents, 12 witnesses, five motions to compel production of documents and one request for admission from the petitioner, and 60 documents, 17 witnesses, six motions to compel production of documents and 68 request for admission from the respondent. We examined 48,000 pages of documents, and we also received 40 boxes of third party petitions.[TK:  Remember that impeachment is a trial. The "petitioner"[...]

Honorifics: Not as Complicated as You Think


(source)Dear Korean,How do you address your seonbae when you're not at work? I mean I know I will still refer to him/her as seonbae and at the beginning we will both use formal language, but what happens if he/she wants to drop the honorifcs? If we are, for example, out for a drink and we want to talk in a casual manner what happens if my seonbae is younger than me? Will they now call me unnie/nuna? And if so, aren't they supposed to use honorific language towards me?Really Confused Polish GirlHonorifics in Korean language confuse most non-Koreans. They are generally aware that honorifics exist in Korea, and there are certain rules as to how the honorifics are used. Because honorifics--at least, the kind that is as complicated as Korea's--don't really exist in most languages, it is difficult for non-Koreans to imagine how honorifics are supposed to be used in real life. They can try to learn the rules, but it only confuses them more because they can easily come up with a situation where two rules conflict with each other--like the questioner here.In reality, honorifics is not that complicated. As a practical matter, there is only one default rule: between two adults, polite speech is used, especially if they are meeting for the first time. The age difference between the two adults does not matter. The social relationship between the two adults does not matter. Between two adults, polite speech is used. If you are visiting Korea and you are not entirely sure about your honorific rules, this is all you need to remember. In fact, it is not strange at all for an adult to use the polite speech to a child that he is meeting for the first time.If you have room in your head for one more rule, here it is:  if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them. These are the only two rules that you really need to know about honorifics. Seeing how this plays out in real life situation makes it much easier to understand. Below are some real life situations that TK encountered recently.Scenario 1.  TK teaches a graduate school class for non-U.S. attorneys. Some of TK's students are Koreans, and converse with TK in Korean. Can TK drop the honorifics to his Korean students, because he is the teacher and they are his students? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. Scenario 2.  At the same graduate school, TK sometimes works together with a research fellow, who is a Korean woman older than TK. TK refers to the research fellow as seonbaenim [upperclassman] and uses the polite speech, because she began working for the graduate school before TK did. Can the research fellow then drop the honorifics to TK, because TK is her hubae [lower-classman] and younger than she? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. Scenario 3.  TK has a close friend RB. RB is older than TK, so TK refers to him as hyeong [older brother], and RB drops the honorifics to TK. One day, RB introduces another one of his friend, JS, to TK. JS is the same age as RB. Can JS drop the honorifics to TK right away? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. JS is meeting TK for the first time. It does not matter that JS is older than TK, nor does it matter that JS is the same age as RB who has dropped the honorifics to TK.Scenario 4.  TK, RB, and JS meet for the second time. After a few round of drinks, TK tells JS to drop the honorifics, because JS is RB's friend. JS agrees. Is this ok? Yes, because if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them. Get the picture? Now, there will be plenty of situations that seem to break the default rule, but that is only because of the second[...]

Kim Jong-nam Assassinated


Dear Korean,I guess you've been following the news of Kim Jong-nam's assassination and I wanted to know your thoughts about it. Do you think the assassination was really plotted by his half brother Kim Jong-un? Given that Kim Jung-nam is in self exile and doesn't seem to pose a threat to Kim Jung-un's political power, why would his brother still want him on his death list? Also, the whole assassination seems rather amateurish, carried out in broad daylight in a public place with dozens of cameras around. Do you think the whole thing could have been plotted by someone else?GeorgiaOne thing that you can confidently say about following Korean news: there is never a dull moment. Real-life Game of Thrones-style international assassination carried out by two female assassins wielding poison darts on Valentine's Day. What other country can offer this kind of excitement?Our dearly departed Kim Jong-nam (source)Some basic facts first. Kim Jong-nam is the oldest son of Kim Jong-il, the previous dictator of North Korea, and half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the current dictator. Kim Jong-il had four wives: Kim Jong-nam was the son from the first wife, and Kim Jong-un was the son from the third wife. Kim Jong-nam has been living a life of exile, mostly based out of Macao and away from North Korea's power center. It is not entirely clear if Kim Jong-nam renounced the throne (so to speak,) or Kim Jong-un was more ruthless in seizing power. At any rate, Kim Jong-nam essentially lived as a wastrel. Until he was killed in Kuala Lumpur on February 14, he was most well known for the fact that he was caught while using a fake passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.But none of this means Kim Jong-nam was not a threat to Kim Jong-un. In fact, Kim Jong-nam simply being alive posed a threat to Kim Jong-un. Despite the pretensions of communism, North Korea has long been a hereditary monarchy as a practical matter, emphasizing the lineage to the first dictator Kim Il-sung as the source of legitimacy. In such a system, the first son born to the first wife always has a greater claim of legitimacy than the third son born to the third wife. This threat is so great that, in fact, a significant number of North Koreans do not even know Kim Jong-un has older brothers.The threat that Kim Jong-nam posed to Kim Jong-un's power was not merely theoretical. Because there are now enough number of North Korean defectors who escaped the country, there are ex-North Korean political groups that are attempting to establish a North Korean government-in-exile. These groups claim that, because the current North Korean dictatorship is illegally occupying North Korea, there needs to be a government-in-exile that represents the country in the international stage and take a leadership role in assisting resistance within North Korea. At least one of these groups reached out to Kim Jong-nam, asking him to the head of state for the exile government. Kim Jong-nam reportedly declined, but consider the possibilities if he took the offer.To me, particularly notable is the fact that Kim Jong-nam died within 48 hours of an explosive report from Kyunghyang Shinmun, a South Korean newspaper. According to Kyunghyang, Kim Jong-nam served as a messenger between his father Kim Jong-il and Park Geun-hye, before Park became the president of South Korea. Kim Jong-nam apparently kept in regular contact with Park Geun-hye, and would deliver Park's letter to Kim Jong-il. (To be clear: it is actually old news that Park Geun-hye had been sending letters to Kim Jong-il, asking Kim to allow her group based in Europe to operate in Pyongyang. The news is that Kim Jong-nam was involved in the communication between the two.) In addition, Kyunghyang's report[...]

10 Year Reflections: On Writing


(source)Now, time to talk about what's been happening with my life.I have said many times over that this blog began as a way to kill boredom during graduate school. But in the ten years of writing this blog, I stumbled into a career that I never envisioned for myself: being a public intellectual. Obviously, I am not a big name public voice like Andrew Sullivan or Tyler Cowen or Eugene Volokh. But over the last ten years, people began paying attention to what I had to say when it comes to Korea. The blog began to appear more frequently on mainstream media. I even parlayed the blog into writing about Korea on major publications under my real name. (No, I'm still not telling you what it is.) Journalists who cover East Asia reached out to me with increasing frequency.At the same time, my day job as a lawyer was increasingly demanding more of my time. Here is a shocker: being a big law firm lawyer is a tiresome job, and it only gets more tiresome the longer you are at it. I stared down the future of my career, and--at least at the time--saw only bleakness. So, dear readers: I carefully plotted my escape. About a year and a half ago, I finally crafted a cautious middle ground where I can continue to work at my firm while studying at a graduate school, with an eye toward becoming a law professor. I did this for the last year and a half, living a life of balancing a number of spinning plates. I wrote law review articles, worked on my cases at the law firm, studied law more deeply. And I committed myself to writing more on this blog.That was the plan, at least. As regular readers of this blog know, that commitment did not come through. I did not write more on this blog in the last year and a half; in fact, I wrote less. In the process, I ended up learning a few lessons about my relationship with writing.First lesson was that I only had a limited reserve of writing in me. I have always been a fast writer who can bang out many pages in short order. (To be sure, those initial drafts are awful and require multiple rounds of editing for them to make sense.) For the first time in my life, I was in a situation in which I had more time in a day than the amount of writing in me--which made me realize more time did not lead to more writing. My desire to put thoughts into print may be greater than most people's, but its amount is not infinite.I also learned when writing becomes work, the character of my writing changes in several ways. The more obvious change is the "fun" element. Part of the reason why I wrote less on the blog was because I had so much writing to do for law reviews. To be sure, writing a law review article is fun in its own way. But it is a lumbering process of reading background materials, navigating through terms of art, citing sources and crafting an argument--all part of a good writing, to be sure, but done to a point that can get tiresome. TKWife, a professional musician, enjoys playing music, but not like the way a hobbyist enjoys playing music. She might even mess around with music from time to time, but her messing around has a different quality from an amateur messing around with a guitar after a long day from work. Same became of my writing: when writing becomes a job, it can no longer remain as a hobby--or at least, not the kind of hobby you used to have.The less obvious change, but equally as important, was what I might call the element of "groundedness" in writing. Academic writing is paradoxical: on one hand, it requires rigorous research and sourcing of facts than ordinary writing. On the other hand, there is no limit on how outlandish or fanciful the actual content of the article can be. Of course, we want big imagination and grand[...]

10 Year Reflections: Korea in the World


Seoul at night.(source)How did Korea change since 2006, when Ask a Korean! began? There is plenty to talk about, large changes and small. Some of the big changes: Korean economy grew to new heights, even as the world was going to the tanks following the 2008 financial crisis. But the wealth gap between the rich and the poor has been growing, the life at the bottom of the economic ladder has become more tenuous, and youth unemployment has been rising. Smaller changes? Coffee in Korea became a lot better, and so did beer. E-sports became a global thing. Gangnam Style happened.But in my view, the most significant change for Korea is the international baseline of expectations for Korea. The concept of "international baseline of expectations" needs a bit of explanation. (It's a concept that I made up for this post. I'm sure there is a more sophisticated version of the concept in the academia somewhere.) One major lesson I learned from running this blog is knowing just how shallow the thought process is when people think of other countries. It is not simply that the people who send questions to this blog know little about Korea; it is that they do not think much about the fact that Korea is an actual place populated with actual people. People who are afflicted with a particularly stupid version of this think of Korea as some kind of fantasy land, filled with K-pop stars living in the sets of Korean dramas. As such, they are the endless wellsprings of stupid questions. Like this one: "How can someone in Korea like foreign girls, when Korean girls are so pretty? Would dating a blind Korean help?"That's a real question that I received from a real person. Imagine getting this kind of questions every day.I found, over time, that even the sharpest people rely on a version of this. Of course, the sharper people don't think Korea is filled entirely with beautiful men and women like it is on television. But even the smartest people fail to remind themselves of this basic fact: Korea is an actual place populated by actual people.This leads to culturalism. In one of the most popular posts in this blog's 10-year history, I argued against Malcolm Gladwell who claimed that Korean culture's deference for hierarchy caused the Korean Air flight 801 to crash in 1997. Obviously, Gladwell is not stupid. But his claim, distilled to its essence, was incredibly stupid--that Koreans are willing to kill themselves and hundreds of others because Korean culture emphasizes manners. This is not so much a failure of intelligence, but a failure of empathetic imagination."International baseline of expectations," as I conceive of it, is what fills the gap left by this failure. Stated simply, the "baseline" is the vague, hazy image that comes to one's mind when one thinks of another country. What image comes to mind first when you think of Korea? Whatever that image is, it is the image serves as a heuristic for everything about Korea. Regardless of how smart you are, that image always lingers in the background of your mind. and colors every further interaction you have with the country.My sense is that ten years ago, most people around the world had no baseline of expectations for Korea. If they had to, they threw in an image of a generic Asian country and went from there. Today, the baseline image is still hazy--by definition, it never becomes all that clear. But compared to a decade ago, Korea has a dramatically improved baseline of expectations. The default images now involve some combination of skyscrapers, electronics, e-sports and pop culture.This, I think, has been the greatest change that Korea has experienced in the last 10 years.&nbs[...]

10 Year Reflections: On Blogging


(source)This blog, Ask a Korean! was born October 21, 2006. (Here is my very first post, and my very first question answered.) The decade mark of the blog last year should have been a significant occasion. But because of the circumstances in my life (which I will share in due time,) I was not able to give this blog a proper celebration.So here it is to open the new year: a belated 10 year celebration, through a series of reflections about different topics--on blogging, Korea, and myself. Yes, this is going to get a bit self-indulgent. If you have a problem with that, go read The Most Important Policy of this blog one more time.*                           *                           *I began this blog as a way to kill time during the slowness of third year in law school. The direct inspiration for the blog, reflected in its name, is ¡Ask a Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano, who ran (and still runs) his syndicated column in OC Weekly. The blog was somewhat of a joke to myself--in fact, that is still the case in my head to this day. I gave myself a ridiculous pen name, The Korean, and wrote in a ridiculous style, referring to myself in third person. The joke was: you are really not supposed to take me very seriously. I'm just a random guy on the internet with a blog.As many of my jokes go, this one failed. For reasons unknown to me, people kept reading the blog. Publications like the New York Times took me seriously enough to send a reporter to interview me. Although media appearances now have become a regular feature of the blog, I still don't really understand why they keep reading my stuff. In my mind, it means the journalists are not doing their jobs; if they knew what they were talking about, they wouldn't read this internet rando's blog.I can't get over this point partially because I cannot get over what blogging was like ten years ago. Back then, having a blog was a mild embarrassment, like online dating was back in the day. Calling yourself a "blogger" meant you could not manage to get a job. Blogging was not real writing; it could never be serious. In the past ten years, I saw this change in different ways. First came the boom times. Starting around 2009, blogging became mainstream to a point that every company was essentially required to have a blog on its website, just as much as it needs to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account today. On the particular subjects I covered--Korea and Asian America--there was a thriving network of blogs like Marmot's Hole, Roboseyo, Brian in Jeollanam-do and Korea Beat. It helped that this period was also the peak of English speakers visiting Korea to teach English, which led to more bloggers and blog readers. Another turn came around 2013. Blogging became so successful that it turned into something else entirely. Big name blogs, written by serious people discussing serious stuff (like Marginal Revolution or Volokh Conspiracy,) were absorbed into the framework of mainstream media (in their cases, to the Washington Post) and simply became "media." For people who simply wanted to chronicle their daily lives (or minutely or secondly lives, as it turned out,) first came Tumblr, then Twitter, where they could vomit their thoughts in real time.This larger trend was visible in Korea bloggers also. One by one, lights started going out. Some wrote much less frequently; some shuttered their blog entirely. The list titled "Korea" in my RSS feed became shorter and shorter. I could not help but notice that as bloggers got [...]

Goodbye 2016



2016 has been a year of great changes in my life. All year long, I had hoped that I would be able to share with you exactly what changed. But the year kept running and running, and here we are. At the very last day of the year, I am still not in a position to tell you all the changes that are coming.

Long time readers know AAK! traditions: the worst emails of the year, followed by the list of most read articles for the year. Not this year, however. As my life changes, so will this blog. And there is no telling where this blog will be in the next several weeks, because I cannot tell where my life is heading. I can only wait.

Undoubtedly, I am missing a lot. This year was the 10 year anniversary of Ask a Korean!, and I do have plenty of things to say about that experience. There is still so much I can say about Korean politics, U.S. politics and what it means to live as an Asian American. There is still so much to be said about Korea, the most interesting country in the world. I regret that I have not been able to do all that in 2016.

So if you would indulge me, let's hold onto those things. Soon, I will be able to share with you all the things that have been happening with me and with this blog. Until then, be safe, healthy and well. See you next year.

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The Lessons of Choi Soon-sil Scandal


I.Mass protest demanding Park Geun-hye's resignation, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd size isestimated to be nearly a million. (source)The Choi Soon-sil scandal, and the subsequent impeachment of Park Geun-hye, are seismic events that are sending shock waves throughout the world. The scandal’s magnitude and bizarre nature are tempting many observers to connect it to other seismic political events around the world, such as the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Seizing upon the massive weekly protests, the observers claim that the South Korean “people” are tired of the “status quo” and are now revolting against the “establishment.” By making this connection, these observers are trying to forge some type of grand theory of global politics, trying to capture a planet-wide zeitgeist of some kind.But this is all wrong—a lazy analysis that is totally ignorant of Korea’s recent political history. Korea’s reaction to the the Choi Soon-sil-gate does offer a real political lesson for the world, but not because it is the second coming of Brexit or another version of Trump. Just matching up the basic facts of these events reveals how facile this comparison is. Both Brexit vote and Trump election were fairly close affairs. Brexit vote was around 52 percent “leave” to 48 percent “remain.” Despite his campaign manager’s deluded claim of a “landslide,” Trump won with one of the worst margins of electoral college in U.S. history, and trailed Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes across the country. In contrast, Korea is totally unified in its rejection of its president. The support for Park Geun-hye is around 4 to 5 percent, essentially a statistical error. The participants of Korea’s popular revolt are also completely different from those of either Brexit vote or Trump election. The victorious electorate in the Brexit vote and the Trump election is characterized as being rural as opposed to urban, less educated as opposed to highly educated, poorer as opposed to richer. Those differences do not exist in Korea’s rejection of Park Geun-hye—they cannot exist when 96 percent of the country disapproves the president. Further, the loudest voices in Korea that have been demanding Park Geun-hye’s resignation are not Korea’s equivalent of the “white working class.” They have been highly educated urban middle- and upper middle-class, who work in white collar occupations in the skyscrapers near the City Hall Square where there have been weekly protests of more than a million people.The triggering event for Choi Soon-sil-gate—namely, the fishy admission of Choi’s daughter into Ewha Womans University—captures this essential difference. Ewha, established in 1886 as Korea’s first modern school for women, is an embodiment of Korea’s “establishment.” It is an institution that prides itself in producing Korea’s women leaders. Three out of the nine First Ladies in South Korean history attended Ewha. An overwhelming majority of the names that would fill in the blank of “first Korean woman to …” belong to Ewha graduates. And it was the fury of the Ewha students and graduates over the fact that Choi’s daughter Jeong Yoo-ra may have gotten into Ewha based on favoritism that finally broke the Choi scandal wide open. Some shaman’s daughter fraudulently took the Ewha name was the basis of this fury. If there is any class element to Choi Soon-sil scandal, it is the reverse of Brexit and Trump election: it is Korea’s urban middle class raining scorn upon [...]

Impeachment: Where does Korea Go from Here?


Jeong Se-gyun, chairman of the National Assembly, announcing the passage of the bill to impeach the president.(source)After a month of trudging through shitty political news, things are finally looking up in Korea. On Friday, the National Assembly passed the bill to impeach President Park Geun-hye, by the vote of 234 to 56. Although the many crimes of Park Geun-hye through her confidant have shocked the world, it was not a sure thing that the National Assembly would actually impeach the president. About a month ago when I wrote this post, I was not entirely optimistic about the chances for impeachment. The National Assembly has 300 elected legislators, and the impeachment bill required at least 200 votes to pass. In the National Assembly, Park Geun-hye's Saenuri Party has 129 seats--which means there had to be at least 29 defections from the president's own party for the impeachment to succeed. In the days leading up to the vote, tensions were high. As embattled as the president was, was there really going to be enough votes to bring her down? Failed impeachment vote was a real possibility--in which case, everyone would be at a loss.Naturally, there was a huge sigh of relief when Jeong Se-gyun, chairman of the National Assembly, announced the vote tally: 234 votes in favor of impeachment, an overwhelming victory.* The margin of victory means at least 63 members of Park Geun-hye's own party--nearly half of its Assembly representatives--voted to impeach the president. That Korea's conservatives so completely turned on their own president is the most interesting part of this ongoing political saga. (I will expand on this point in the next upcoming post.)But this is hardly a done deal. Americans who lived through the Bill Clinton era may find this phrase familiar: impeachment is a trial, not removal from the office. Same is true with Korea. Functionally speaking, impeachment only means that the National Assembly filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court of Korea. The court must try the case and find that the president seriously violated the constitution or statutes, before she is actually removed from the office.Because my day job is being a lawyer, it is highly interesting for me to see the extent to which the impeachment trial proceeds just like any other litigation. After the impeachment bill passed, the case is docketed with the court and is assigned a case number. The president must be served with process--as if she needs the notice that the National Assembly decided to impeach her! Just imagine being the process server for this case. Yes, a process server personally makes the service, even in impeachment. What would go through your mind as you deliver the summons to the presidential residence? Would you require a security detail, just in case some deranged lunatic tried to intercept your delivery?The responsive pleading by the president, which is guaranteed to be a riveting read, is due this coming Friday, December 16. The court is yet to schedule the dates for hearings, but there will almost certainly be several rounds of hearing. Last time when the Constitutional Court heard an impeachment case, involving then-President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, the court held seven rounds of hearing before dismissing the case. If we are lucky, we may get the first round of hearing before the end of the year.** By law, the Constitutional Court must issue a decision within 180 days after the case was filed. The court took 62 days in Roh's impeachment, but it is almost certain that the court will take longer in Park Geun-[...]

Readers, I Need Your Help with Facebook (Resolved Now!)



[EDIT 2016/12/09:  Looks like Facebook unblocked me. That was pretty quick--thanks everyone!]

Ok folks, TK needs your help here. For some reason, Facebook blocked this blog. Many of you told me you can't share or send messages containing the hyperlink to AAK!. Facebook is also blocking me from sharing my blog posts on the blog's Facebook page through an automated feed.

Facebook blocked my site apparently because it failed to meet "community standards." You all know that is not true. I have done what I can with Facebook, but please help me out by doing the following: try and share something from my blog on Facebook. When Facebook stops you from doing so, there will be a link that lets you tell Facebook why the blocking is a mistake. In that box, you can copy and paste the message below:
"Ask a Korean! is a blog that explains Korean culture and current events. The blog has existed for a decade, and has had tens of millions of visitors so far. It contains no material that is inappropriate or objectionable."
Thank you everyone. Hopefully with enough people sending this message, we can resolve this issue quickly.

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2017 NK News Calendars are Here


As long time readers may know, this humble blog has shared long time friendship with NK News, the finest source in English to get the news about North Korea. One of the proudest moments of running this blog was inspiring NK News to begin Ask a North Korean!, an honest and revealing look into the country that is so opaque from the outside.

Here is one way you can support NK News: buy their gorgeous North Korea calendar. I have bought this calendar for the last several years, and always come away impressed with the pictures.

From NK News
For AAK! readers, NK News prepared a special web page with a $10 discount code here. Also check out NK News's online store for unique t-shirts and other North Korea-inspired items.

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The Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer (Part 2)


[See Part 1 of the Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer here]As promised, here is Part 2 of the Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer.I.   OVERVIEWBecause the amount of Choi Soon-sil’s corruption is completely overwhelming, it is a good idea to approach this huge list with a sense of direction. Choi Soon-sil(source)The general modus operandi of Choi Soon-sil has been as follows: Choi would receive the president’s plan for governance, and ran her own “shadow cabinet” that would give comment on the presidential policy plans. In doing so, Choi placed her cronies and her cronies’ cronies in significant policy-planning positions (usually those in pop culture and sports promotion sectors,) and dismissed those who would not go along with her plans. With the cronies in place, Choi and her cronies steered a significant portion of Korea’s national budget to their companies, most of which were shell corporations that did not actually perform the work for which they were contracted or did so in a shoddy manner. Choi and her cronies also peddled influence with Korea’s largest corporations, sometimes stealing outright and sometimes granting certain favors. Choi’s pattern of corruption was the most brazen when it came to her daughter, who fraudulently gained admission into the prestigious Ewha Womans University based on a dicey equestrian scholarship.The net result is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that Choi Soon-sil was involved in virtually every major policy initiative from the Park Geun-hye administration. Choi received national security briefings and gave comments on Park’s Dresden speech, the most significant pronouncement of South Korea’s policy on North Korea. Choi and her cronies steered the budget allocated for upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Korea’s largest corporations—including most notably Samsung—lined up to curry favor with Choi, and their bribery changed the fate of the companies in a very real sense. Through the privatization of governmental power, Choi Soon-sil was on her way to creating a vast network that would be ostensibly engaged in promoting culture and sports, but in fact would pay her and her cronies.II.  HOW TO USE THIS EXPLAINERBecause there is so much ground to cover, I divided the currently outstanding allegations into following categories:A. Interfering in State AffairsB. Hiring and FiringC. Stealing National BudgetD. Stealing from CorporationsE. HorseplayF. Drug Use and Sewol Ferry DisasterTo make this list useful, I gave a number to each allegation, which is grouped with other similar claims.I made this list by reading the Korean news coverage of this scandal for the past month. Each allegation has a hyperlink to Korea’s newspaper or TV station that reported the story. Obviously, everything below is no more than an allegation, as there has been no trial that actually assessed the veracity of these claims. I do have a solid BS detector when it comes to Korea, so I only included the allegations that rose beyond the speculative level. If you don’t like this list, you can ask for a full refund of the money you paid me to read my blog.III.  SUPER BASIC STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOWKorea's president Park Geun-hye lives in Cheongwadae, also known as the Blue House because of its blue tile roof. Blue House is itself a large bureaucracy, in which presidential aides work. The aides are organized into ten departments, whose heads are called "chiefs" [[...]

Happy Thanksgiving!



The Korean wishes happy Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates it. This year, I am thankful for all of you who patiently waited through the long, quiet stretches of this blog, only to reward it with the record-breaking million pageview post toward the end of the year. Many changes in my life prevented me from posting more frequently; soon, I will have the chance to explain what happened to me this year in more detail.

In this time and age, it is ever more important to remember the spirit of Thanksgiving, the holiday for immigrants. The Pilgrim's dinner with the Native Americans symbolize our ideals as a nation of immigrants: newcomers and the natives, on the same table, sharing a meal.

Beauty of history lies in that the patterns in its fabric repeat endlessly. On the Thanksgiving Day of 1997--some 380 years after the Pilgrims--the Korean Family arrived at the port of Los Angeles International Airport, full of anticipation for the Land of Opportunity. The Korean Family was greeted by natives, the distant family friends who have lived in the U.S. for decades as Korean Americans. And like a beautiful fugue, the pattern repeated once again; the natives helped the immigrants to get settled in, and begin their lives in the new world.

Thus, Thanksgiving Day is doubly special for the Korean Family. We never miss celebrating it. We are thankful for all the great things in our lives, but most of all, we are thankful to be in America, as imperfect as it may seem from time to time. Like the Pilgrims who were grateful for their new lives and new opportunities, the Korean Family is grateful, each and every year, for our own new lives and opportunities.

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The Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer (Part 1)


It has been a few weeks since the incredible scandal involving Korea's president Park Geun-hye and her shaman-daughter confidant Choi Soon-sil has been revealed. Streets of Seoul and other major cities in Korea are now hosting nightly protests, some as large as a million people.In two parts, here is everything you need to know, and even a few things that you don't, about this sordid scandal.Some Super Basic Things You Should KnowCheongwadae(source)Korea's executive is made up of the President, who is the head of state, and the Prime Minister, who is the head of government. Prime Minister is mostly a ceremonial position, nominated by the president and confirmed through the National Assembly. But as you will see below, the prime minister's role becomes very important in times of national emergency, as he may be asked to step into the role of the head of state if the president is incapacitated. The current prime minister is Hwang Gyo-an, the third prime minister of the Park administration. Korea's president lives in Cheongwadae, also known as the Blue House because of its blue tile roof. Blue House is itself a large bureaucracy, in which presidential aides work. The aides are organized into several departments, whose heads are called "chiefs" [수석]. This is a separate thing from the cabinet, which is made up of several ministries headed by ministers. Korea's presidents serve a single, five-year term. The next regularly scheduled presidential election is December 2017.There are three major political parties in Korea: Saenuri Party, Democratic Party, and the People's Party. Park Geun-hye belongs to Saenuri, which is the conservative party. Democratic Party is the main progressive party, and the People's Party is ideologically in between Saenuri and Democratic Party. Within Saenuri, there are two major factions: those loyal to the current president, and those loyal to the former president Lee Myung-bak. Although in the same party, those two factions barely get along. That, however, is the better result than the relationship between Democratic Party and the People's Party. People's Party used to be a faction within the Democratic Party, but split off earlier this year.Korea's legislature is called the National Assembly, which has 300 elected legislators. Currently, Saenuri has 129, Democratic has 121, and People's has 38 members. Justice Party, a minor party that is more leftist than the Democratic Party, has six seats. There are six independents. This means that the opposition--made up of Democratic and People's--has the clear majority in the legislature, as long as they are able to work together.Media landscape in Korea--at least in the print and broadcast media--is solidly conservative. The top three circulation papers, Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-A, are all conservative, although with slightly different flavors. (Chosun and Dong-A tend to be more ideologically conservative, and JoongAng tends to be more economically conservative.) These three newspapers also own cable TV networks--TV Chosun, JTBC and Channel A, respectively--that further broadcast along their agenda. South Korea has three major network TV channels: KBS, MBC and SBS. Because two of them--KBS and MBC--are owned by the government, their news coverage tends to be limited to being the government's mouthpiece. For several years, SBS has been the lone bastion of investigative journalism on television. Progressives [...]