Posts Tagged ‘Lee Myung-bak’

Lunar Land-scapegoat

June 22, 2017

Outmoded rituals –like the minor habits of daily domestic life– can be difficult to set aside even once their original purpose has long been lost to modern memory.  Nowhere is this more true than in the Moonrise Kingdom of New Baekje now taking shape upon the ruins remaining from Old Silla.  Amid the tumult and confusion of foreground regime change, longstanding cultural practices keep-on-keepin’-on … at the very margins of visibility.  Case in point, the presidential photo-op:

Way back yonder in the Lee Myung-bak era, Lunghu pointed out that visiting dignitaries at Cheong Wa Dae were sorted by their hosts into a hierarchy of international importance that was signalled by the subtly-coded backdrop before which the traditional handshake photo was staged.  Barbarian emissaries of semi-savage nations (Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia) were received in front of a Chosun-era folding screen depicting lowly foreign messengers performing their kowtow to the Korean emperor.  Diplomats and officials from valuable export markets in Europe and North America posed for their handshake with a glowingly resplendent golden screen behind them.  Close neighbors from China and Japan rated an auspicious Asian landscape painting replete with Sinitic symbolism.  A place for everyone, and everyone in their place.

This pattern from Lee Myung-bak’s Republic of Hyundai didn’t change during Park Geun-hye‘s Republic of Samsung, and thus far it hasn’t changed under Moon Jae-in‘s Republic of Candlepower.  That’s why Beijing-bound Beltway advanceman Richard N. Haass is backlit with a golden aura in the photo above.  Despite what Koreans might think of the monarch whose message he bears, the United States is still a precious ally in an unfriendly neighborhood.  As far as Koreans are concerned, the U.S. alliance is a vital relationship that can –and must– outlast four years of attempted sabotage inspired by Comrade Bear.


That said, let’s never forget that national politics is –in every nation– a cutthroat, zero-sum, feast-or-famine struggle for survival.  So it should be absolutely no surprise that the newly-exiled courtiers of Old Silla (under the rebranded label of Liberty Korea Party) are seeking to exploit their well-established backchannel links with American conservatives to discredit the Moon government’s national security policies.  According to these hardened cold-warriors, a left-center/progressive/human activist like Moon Jae-in is someone who will place the freedom-loving Korean nation in jeopardy by being soft on China and squishy on Kim Jong-un.  Since President Moon currently has public approval ratings above 80%, they’ve inevitably chosen to attack his appointees rather than the man himself.  Thus their overt parliamentary maneuvering and covert media campaigns against foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha and national security adviser Moon Chung-in.

In fact, Hannara/GNP/Saenuri/Liberty Korea knows quite well that the new administration has no real wiggle room to dramatically alter inter-Korean relations: Kim Jong-un ain’t playin’.  Instead, what really worries the kleptocrats of Liberty Korea is the inevitable, inexorable impact of a looming government crackdown on chaebol corruption. Coming soon: a long overdue Brazilian-style carwash investigation, transplanted to Gangnam and points South-Southeast.



Frisson d’Avril

April 1, 2017

The yin water Rabbit month ended earlier this week (on Monday or Tuesday, depending on your location under the rising new moon), but feng shui misfortunes persist for those whose star-crossed destinies are in clash with the Year of the Fowl.  Case in point: Park Geun-hye, dowager queen of Hell-Joseon.

Four years and three months after being elected, the same Park Geun-hye who vowed to become a “public welfare president” and “a president for unity” was incarcerated on March 31 as a suspect in 13 criminal charges, including bribery. The arrest warrant, which was issued by Seoul Central District Court 21 days after the Constitutional Court removed Park from presidential office, is based on a number of charges against her, including the acceptance of a 43.3 billion won (US$38.6 million) bribe from Samsung.  “Since the main charges have been established and there are concerns about the destruction of evidence, we grant the grounds for detention, its necessity and its significance,” Judge Kang Bu-yeong said.

Prosecutors managed to back up their charge that Park received 43.3 billion won from Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong (in jail under investigative detention) in return for government rulings that helped him inherit management rights over the Samsung Group.  Their evidence included the notebook of Park’s former aide, Senior Secretary for Economic Affairs Ahn Jong-beom (in jail awaiting trial) and several text messages exchanged by Samsung staff who were discussing financial support for Choi Sun-sil’s daughter Jung Yu-ra.

Prosecutors are very likely to file charges against Park before April 17, which marks the beginning of the official election period [stipulated under Korea’s Constitution].  Prosecutors are also likely to speed up their investigation of Samsung and other chaebols, including Lotte and SK, who have come up in the investigation of Choi Sun-sil.

Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin

Two years ago, the handwriting on the wall which foretold Park’s downfall was literally there to be seen  –hiding in plain sight in her presidential palace.  But the message was written in the language of images rather than in Hangul or Roman characters.  I blogged about this cryptic portent in January 2015, parsing the symbolic meaning of imagery depicted in a scenic backdrop that formed part of the stage set for Park’s New Year’s message to the Korean people.  In retrospect, given what we now know about Choi Sun-sil’s control over the presentation of Park’s public persona, it’s clear that the iconic symbols crammed into the landscape were almost certainly chosen by Choi herself as a coded message to the business executives she was shaking down:  the president’s treasure bowl is to be filled through the three Blue House aides portrayed as grazing deer.

So, because Korean history inevitably repeats itself, I’m not at all surprised that the ROK is once again submerged in a tsunami of scandalous corruption.  Lee Myung-bak‘s Republic of Hyundai was briefly succeeded by Lee Jae-yong‘s Republic of Samsung, and now something else will be hastily cobbled together to masquerade as governance in the southern provinces.  In a waning Yin Fire year, Earth and Metal are signs of Korea’s future.



February 24, 2013

Daeboreum,” the day of the first full moon of the lunar year, falls on February 24 this year.   Koreans eat nuts, seasoned greens and “ogokbap” consisting of five kinds of grain to wish for health and happiness and to repel evil spirits.  Every five years, they also change Presidential administrations.  So it’s farewell to Lee Myung-bak, and a rather tepid welcome for Park Geun-hye. This is Lunghu’s last chance to comment on President Lee before he becomes Citizen Lee, so it’s time for the Lee Myung-bak retrospective photomontage that we’d hoped to see before the end of 2012.

Sometime ago, Lunghu blogged about the hidden meaning of decorative backdrops in official Korean photo-op portraits.  Faithful readers may recall that Lunghu had observed a striking correlation between the national origin of official visitors and Lee Myung-bak’s use as a backdrop of a Chosun-dynasty screen depicting the ceremonial protocol of barbarian emissaries presenting tribute to the Chosun emperor.  President Lee’s visitors from Africa, South Asia and Latin America shook hands in front of images showing kowtowing barbarians, while visitors from high-value export markets in Europe, East Asia and the United States did not.  Did this cultural pattern change during the Year of the Dragon?  Nope!

Joyce Banda : Malawi

Joyce Banda : Malawi

Fernando Lugo : Paraguay

Fernando Lugo : Paraguay

Ollanta Humala : Peru

Ollanta Humala : Peru


Recep Tayyip Erdogan : Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan : Turkey

Islam Karimov : Uzbekistan

Islam Karimov : Uzbekistan


Viktor Yanukovych : Ukraine

Viktor Yanukovych : Ukraine

Carl Gustav IV : whore-king of Sweden

Carl Gustav IV : whore-king of Sweden

Herman Van Rompuy/JM Barroso : European Council

Herman Van Rompuy/JM Barroso : European Council

Mariano Rajoy : Espana

Mariano Rajoy : Espana

Mahinda Rajapaksa : Sri Lanka

Mahinda Rajapaksa : Sri Lanka

Nguyen Tan Dung : Viet Nam

Nguyen Tan Dung : Viet Nam

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono : Indonesia

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono : Indonesia

Koro Bessho : Japanese Ambassador to ROK

Koro Bessho : Japanese Ambassador to ROK

Noble Guests

Here are the noble guests whose photo-ops occurred in front of a golden backdrop depicting tortoises (longevity), deer (wealth, long life) and other symbolically propitious imagery:

Aung San Suu Kyi : Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi : Myanmar

Lars Rasmussen : Denmark

Lars Rasmussen : Denmark

Kuupik Vandersee Kleist : Greenland

Kuupik Vandersee Kleist : Greenland

Jim Yong Kim : USA/World Bank

Jim Yong Kim : USA/World Bank

Valentina Matvienko : Russia

Valentina Matvienko : Russia

Meng Jianzhu : China

Meng Jianzhu : China

Julia Marton-Lefevre : International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Julia Marton-Lefevre : International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)


Achim Steiner : UN Environment Program (UNEP)

Achim Steiner : UN Environment Program (UNEP)

Lingering questions …

… that may never be satisfactorily answered:

  • Why such gold-standard esteem for UN functionaries?  Could it be because they work for a Korean (Ban Ki-moon)?
  • Why does President Lee think so highly of Denmark and Greenland?  Is it Denmark’s perennial ranking as the least-corrupt nation in the world?
  • Why does President Lee think so poorly of Spain and the European Union?  Are there trade barriers impeding importation of Hyundais?



Get the Point?

January 9, 2012

Lunghu wasn’t aware that the protocol for visits by a foreign head of state required the honor guard to present arms with fixed bayonets. Apparently, though, that’s how they do things in China.  At least when Lee Myung-bak comes to visit.

Poor President Lee –it seems he thought that Hu Jin-tao just wanted to spend a few days discussing the future of bi-lateral relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.   However, to leave his aircraft, and to enter the Great Hall of the People, the President had to walk a gauntlet of impeccably uniformed Chinese from every branch of the armed forces.  Lots of ’em.  Just to get the message across, naval personnel were present by the boatload.

Judging by the photographs, this particular Korean President doesn’t look too comfortable with weaponry.  Which (as Sun-tzu would tell you) is exactly the point.

Divisible by Four

January 2, 2012

On Sunday,  New Year’s Day, just as surely as the sun rises in the east, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea once again issued its annual New Year’s message.  Last year, Lunghu provided his readers with a mind-numbing analysis of that day’s press coverage as provided by the running-dog Western imperialist bourgeois lackey media.  In doing so, he hoped (no doubt  vainly) to improve the quality of news coverage in general, and of DPRK in particular.  Let’s take a look at how this year’s press coverage changed (or not).

The contestants for 2012 are Yonhap News Service, Agence France Presse, Associated Press, and Bloomberg News.  Let’s compare and contrast.

27 paragraphs

1 summary (lead) paragraph [S] (3.7%)
11.5 paragraphs quoting/paraphrasing the DPRK editorial [E] (42.6%)
10 providing context/background [B] (30%)
2 providing reaction/commentary [C] (7.4%)
2.5 providing explanatory analysis [A] (9.3%)

here’s the semantic structure of the Yonhap story:

9 DPRK message themes cited (in order of appearance):

  • place absolute trust in and  follow Kim Jong-Eun
  • call for withdrawal of US troops from Korea
  • defend Kim Jong-Eun “unto death
  • defend the [Workers] Party Central Committee
  • establish Kim’s “unified military command system
  • praise for Kim Jong-Eun as a “peerless patriot” and “brilliant commander
  • no change in the policies of Kim Jong-Il
  • promise to develop “friendship with nations that respect our country’s sovereignty
  • criticism of Lee Myung-bak and the GNP government of ROK

Analyst quotedChang Yong-seok, a senior researcher of peace and unification studies at Seoul National University

Explanatory themes:  internal stability is the North’s top priority [anonymous ROK Unification Ministry official] / DPRK is seeking to avoid “creating a stumbling block to dialogue with the US” [CY-S]

Agence France Presse
10 paragraphs

1 summary (lead) paragraph [S] (10%)
5.5 paragraphs quoting/paraphrasing the DPRK editorial [E] (55%)
3.5 providing context/background [B] (35%)
0 providing explanatory analysis [A]

here’s the semantic structure of the AFP story:

6 DPRK message themes cited (in order of appearance):

  • defend Kim Jong-Eun “unto death
  • strengthen the armed forces
  • promise to develop “friendship with nations that respect our country’s sovereignty
  • no mention of retaliation against ROK for its “insults” during mourning for Kim Jong-Il
  • emphasis on strengthening the leadership role of the Korean People’s Workers Party
  • carry out Kim Jong-Il’s prosperity plan for 2012

Analyst quoted:  none

Explanatory themes:  100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung in 2012


Associated Press
26 paragraphs

1 summary (lead) paragraph [S] (3.8%)
7 paragraphs quoting/paraphrasing the DPRK editorial [E] (26.9%)
10.3  providing context/background [B] (39.6%)
4.3 providing local Pyongyang color [L] (16.5%)
1 providing reaction/commentary [C] (3.8%)
2.3 providing explanatory analysis [A] (8.8%)

here’s the semantic structure of the AP story:

8 DPRK message themes cited (in order of appearance):

  • no strident criticism of the US
  • prosperity is unfolding
  • defend Kim Jong-Eun “unto death
  • strengthen the armed forces
  • the food problem is a burning issue
  • build on the foundations laid by Kim Jong-Il and become an “economic giant
  • Kim Jong-Eun is “the eternal center of the nation’s unity
  • non-specific desire for Korean unification

Analyst quotedYoo Ho-yeol, professor at Korea University

Explanatory themes:   North Korea will focus on its economy and ideological solidarity to establish stability for Kim Jong Un’s leadership [YH-Y] / North Korea is leaving room for the chance of improved ties with the United States [YH-Y]

Bloomberg News
16 paragraphs

1 summary (lead) paragraph [S] (6.3%)
3.5 paragraphs quoting/paraphrasing the DPRK editorial [E] (21.8%)
7 providing context/background [B] (43.7%)
0 providing reaction/commentary [C]
4.5 providing explanatory analysis [A] (28.1%)

here’s the semantic structure of the Bloomberg story:

6 DPRK message themes cited (in order of appearance):

  • the food problem is a burning issue in building a thriving country
  • power shortages should be solved at all costs
  • no mention of inter-Korean dialog or cooperation
  • withdrawal of US forces from Korea
  • ROK President Lee Myung-bak was guilty of “madcap saber-rattling” after Kim Jong-Il’s death
  • new coal fields and hydroelectric power stations should be developed

Analysts quotedKim Yong Hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University / unnamed intelligence analyst at ROK Unification Ministry / Yang Moo Jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies

Explanatory themes:  Food shortages were mentioned with the intent to attract aid from the outside world [KY-H] / the Kim Jong-Eun regime will continue Kim Jong Il’s policies [KY-H] / Kim Jong-Eun needs to prove himself with economic successes [YM-J]   DPRK intends to continue its songun (military-first) policy [YM-J]

Lunghu’s Meta-analysis:

Yonhap‘s approach to the DPRK New Year’s message is just about the same as in 2011:  roughly 40% message and one-third context/background, the remainder with equal parts commentary and analysis.  Yonhap translates a particularly colorful portion of the 2012 message as urging that “the entire army should … become human rifles and bombs to defend [KJE] unto death.”   Interestingly, non-Korean media translated that portion of the text using by terms for defensive armament rather than offensive weaponry (see AFP and AP below).

Yonhap upgraded its analysis this year by citing a [mid-ranking] academic source from prestigious Seoul National University.  Last year, Yonhap quoted an analyst at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul think tank which Lunghu seems to recall is affiliated with the Grand National Party.  Korean media has been giving a lot of coverage to the DPRK succession process in the past few weeks, so there really wasn’t much need to bulk up coverage of the New Year’s message with a lot of analysis: they’d just be repeating what’s already been said elsewhere in the Seoul press.  Yonhap highlights 3 categories of themes embedded in the DPRK New Year’s message:  internal regime succession (67%), policy continuity (22%), and dislike of Lee Myung-bak (11%).

Agence France Presse coverage was a bit skimpy in 2011 and it’s even thinner this year: they seem to have just gone through the motions for the sake of appearances.  Not surprisingly, AFP devoted much more coverage to President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s reelection-year New Year’s message.  In emphasizing the “defend KJE unto death” aspect of the New Year’s message, AFP’s translation quotes the call for “human bulwarks and human shields”  rather than Yonhap’s version of  “human rifles and bombs.” The story also quotes no analysts at all, but perhaps that’s because Bloomberg News called Professor Yang Moo-Jin first.  AFP focuses on 3 theme categories within the 2012 DPRK message:  internal regime succession (60%), economic development (20%) and militarism (20%).

Lunghu didn’t review Associated Press coverage of the 2011 DPRK New Year’s message, so he doesn’t have a basis for year-on-year comparison.  However, he definitely likes what bureau chief Jean Lee has done with the AP’s coverage of this story:  in addition to providing quotes from the message, context/ background and analysis, the AP has leveraged its on-the-ground presence in Pyongyang to add a local, human-interest dimension to what is usually a dry, international geopolitics piece.  One-sixth of the AP story describes what just-plain-folks in North Korea are doing on New Year’s Day.  That approach is important to AP’s customer base: the small or mid-sized all-American media outlet whose readership isn’t intensively involved in following news developments in Asia.

Associated Press reinforces its empathetic approach to the story in its choice of which themes of the DPRK message receive emphasis: economic development (38%), internal regime succession (25%), and appeasement of US / ROK (25%) definitely outweigh mention of militarism (12%).   Naturally, some of the AP’s editorial stance reflects a desire to continue working as one of the few Western media outlets with an office in Pyongyang.  2012 is definitely the right year to be eyewitness to history.  AP’s academic analyst goes right with the flow, citing DPRK’s focus on the economy and its hope to improve dialog with the US.

Bloomberg News definitely picked up its game from last year’s performance —perhaps editor Matt Winkler set out some higher expectations for 2012.  The 2011 story contained no analysis worthy of the name, but Bloomberg’s 2012 version cited no fewer than three analysts!  This year’s story was two paragraphs longer, and almost a third of the piece was devoted to analysis of the 2012 DPRK message.  The proportion of context/ background remained the same: more than 40% of the story overall.  What got trimmed?  Quotes and paraphrases of the New Year’s message itself.  Also interesting:  this year Bloomberg elected to stick to its business-news knitting and emphasize the economic aspects of North Korea’s message.  (In 2011 Bloomberg hyped the militaristic dimensions of Pyongyang’s New Year’s statement.)  Bloomberg’s 2012 story –beginning with the headline– focuses primarily on themes of economic development (50%) and North Korea’s hostility toward Lee Myung-bak (33%), with militarism (17%) a distant third.

Minor translation note: the Bloomberg story cites DPRK accusations that Lee Myung-bak “provoked the North by limiting South Korean visits to Kim Jong Il’s funeral and was guilty of ‘madcap saber-rattling’ after [KJI’s] death.”   In Lunghu’s view, the word ‘madcap’ calls to mind images of mischievous-but-ultimately-harmless gaiety (think Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny) rather than anything truly threatening (Sylvester the Cat? Marvin the Martian?).  Perhaps the term ‘lunatic’ would have been a better choice.  We’re talking about Lee Myung-bak after all: the guy doesn’t have a madcap gene anywhere in his chromosomes.

Happy New Year (of the Dragon)!

Nice Work If U Can Get It

December 10, 2011

For those (few) readers expecting some kind of discussion here about Russia’s recent elections, Lunghu has this to say:  “Elections? What elections?”   If you catch my drift…

Instead, Lunghu is going to continue his occasional long-range surveillance of the Korean peninsula by commenting on the activities last week of three leading personalities in the Grand National Party:  the President, the Prime Minister and the (former) party chairman.  Once again, thanks to Yonhap for pictures that tell most of the story.

President Lee Myung-bak: a President you’d actually trust with your kids.  He might bore them to tears, but they’ll come to no harm.

Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik: he has to do all the dirty work, like ensuring parliamentary passage of an unpopular Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and publicly performing CPR on a repulsive plastic dummy at Seoul Fire Department headquarters.  Lunghu is gonna guess that the finger position being demonstrated by one of Seoul’s Bravest might be a silent response to sexist catcalls from the journalists and photographers in attendance.  Korean men aren’t exactly known for their enlightened attitudes toward women.

Representative Hong Jun-pyo:  he’s going to have to go back to his day job as South Gyeongsang factional arm-twister in the National Assembly.

The embattled chief of the ruling Grand National Party resigned Friday, yielding to mounting pressure from reformist members seeking desperately to reshape the beleaguered party ahead of next year’s general elections.  The resignation came two days after three top GNP leaders quit en masse in a political coup that underscored concerns among reform-minded members that the party won’t be able to regain public confidence under Hong and will suffer crushing defeats in April’s parliamentary elections.

In its article covering the story, Yonhap News Service appears to have mixed a bit of editorializing in with its journalism:

Rep. Hong Jun-pyo’s departure is sure to add pressure on the GNP’s leading presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye to step forward and help salvage the unpopular party … [She is] an unrivaled presidential front-runner in the [GNP].   If Park is to take over as GNP leader, the party should revise its charter that bans presidential hopefuls from serving in a leadership post one and a half years before the vote.

“Unrivaled frontrunner”?  “Should revise its charter”?  Lunghu thinks that Yonhap has its money on the mare in next year’s horserace.  That leaves open the question of who will bet on the proverbial bobtail nag.  We’ll see …

Laugh, and the World Laughs With You

November 22, 2011

Who’s the most dangerous man on the Korean peninsula right now?   If your answer was Kim Jong-il, you’ve revealed yourself to be a conventional thinker, a dupe of running-dog imperialist propaganda — and just plain wrong.   That’s because the real threat to established order in the Hermit Kingdom isn’t some pudgy old guy with inexorable kidney failure, a volatile temper and a half-assed nuclear weapons program, it’s an angry young(ish) satirist with a nationwide broadband podcast audience.  Think Jon Stewart plus kimchi — and minus the AIPAC scriptwriting crew.

credit: Matt Douma

Well, OK:  maybe not so young.   Kim Ou-joon is forty-two, and as an Internet veteran with more than a decade of web-based comedy behind him, he’s no flash-in-the-pan overnight sensation.

In 1998, Kim launched a political parody website called Daily Tackle, where he posted images showing the heads of politicians grafted onto the bodies of bikini-clad women.

Now, his free weekly audio podcast “I’m a Weasel” …

… ranks as the world’s most popular political podcast, with 2 million weekly downloads.  Kim uses digital media –in a format that is equal parts talk show, rant session and comedy skits–  to rally disenfranchised youths in a challenge to the status quo, and caught the establishment flat-footed.  The [podcast refers] to Lee Myung-bak as “His Highness” and “our morally perfect president.”  One recurring character belittles Lee, who is a Protestant church elder, by singing bawdy songs to the tune of church hymns.

Kim’s humor is considered [outrageous] in a nation where anyone younger than 40 is expected to respect their elders. That explains why “I’m a Weasel” has triggered a political backlash, even legal repercussions.   …  Analysts say Kim was largely responsible for the decisive turnout of young voters in Seoul’s recent mayoral election, in which the ruling Grand National Party candidate was soundly defeated by a little-known left-wing activist [Park Won-soon].
   [As a result,] Kim and his co-hosts have been indicted for allegedly spreading false information that the ruling party’s unsuccessful [female] candidate in the mayoral race ran up a $100,000 annual bill at a skin-care clinic.

The GNP’s approach to digital media is more traditionalist:  in addition to its influence with major print and broadcast media outlets, it employs its own version of the Chinese “water army” to flood online discussion boards with messages favorable to the party and its minions.   However, this massive cyber-deployment appears to have been outflanked and outmaneuvered by dissident voices who are using the growth of mobile broadband to open new communication pathways among the unwired masses.   All comedy involves the loss of dignity, so political parody accelerates the process of replacing deference to power with contempt and outright defiance.  Which is a good thing for humanity in general.

Satire or not, things don’t look so good for the GNP in next year’s Presidential election.  Seoul and Gyeonggi Province (with almost half the country’s population) are customarily the swing districts in national elections, so a candidate from GNP’s Daegu or Busan strongholds just ain’t gonna cut it.  Park Geun-hye has been trying to burnish her international credentials among Korea’s America-oriented elite (most recently with her byline over a ghost-written policy piece in this month’s edition of Foreign Affairs), but that approach isn’t going to win many votes among the young and restless.  Gyeonggi governor Kim Moon-su is younger and has labor-activist credentials that he doesn’t hesitate to emphasize:  he may end up as the GNP candidate if Korean chaebol oligarchs can be assured that he’s sufficiently pliable.

Regardless of how next year’s presidential election turns out, Lunghu has a warning for Korea-watchers:  note the resemblance of Kim Ou-joon to one of Choi Min-sik‘s more memorable portrayals, and consider the possibility that ‘Old Boy‘ is less a cinematic fiction about a single character than a prescient parable about an entire nation.


Evergreen Old Boy

Ahn to the Next

September 6, 2011

In Korea, there is such a thing as a free lunch.  Sort of.  For children. In school (where Korean children are often known to be found).  And that free lunch can determine the course of political careers in the nation’s capital:  last month the mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, resigned his officeafter failing to block an opposition-led free school lunch program in the city’s first-ever referendum.

Seoul will have an election on October 26 to choose a new mayor.  Mr. Oh had served 14 months of his second four-year term after winning re-election last year.

Mayor Oh was attempting to follow the Lee Myung-bak/GNP playbook for political success:  demonstrate your management and leadership skills as mayor of Seoul; build a financial base for future campaigns by sponsoring a huge public works program that will bind construction companies close to your bosom; prove your allegiance to the interests of Korea’s elite, and (with their support) succeed to the Presidency in a year’s time.  Didn’t quite work out as planned, because the little people got in the way.  As in the United States, those little people aren’t at all happy with politics-as-usual.  Which is why the leading (undeclared) candidate to replace Oh was (until today) a physician-turned-entrepreneur-turned-academic with no previous political background.  (Koreans just can’t help turning to yangban scholars in times of crisis.)

Ahn Cheol-soo, 49, a doctor-turned-computer expert who founded South Korea’s best-known anti-virus software firm Ahnlab, is widely popular, especially among young Koreans, due in part to his clean image. Surveys have put him well ahead of other possible [mayoral] contenders from both the ruling and opposition parties … Ahn received nearly 40 percent support among Seoul residents.

But wait!  Ahn “announced Tuesday that he has decided against a run and will instead back a leading liberal activist, Park Won-soon, in the upcoming election.”   What factors might lie behind this sudden withdrawal from the public stage?   Lunghu thinks it’s at least mighty coincidental that a major chaebol media outlet ran two prominent stories just yesterday:

Ahn Cheol-soo Keeps Private Life Private
Kim Mi-kyung: Much More Than the AhnLab Founder’s Wife

Among the interesting lines in these articles:

His private life has largely been off-limits.  Even some friends only know that he lives near the financial district of Yeouido but not the exact address.

Ahn does not have a cell phone and apparently communicates by e-mail.  His wife, SNU professor Kim Mi-kyung, said in one media interview, “If I don’t know where my husband is, I do an Internet search.” (c.f. Bernadette Chirac)

Kim was a respected pathology professor for 15 years at Sungkyunkwan University and Samsung Medical Center.  In 2002, she suddenly quit and went to the U.S. to study law … [at the] University of Washington, was admitted to the bar of California and New York after her J.D. in 2005, and then worked at Stanford Law School’s Center for Law and Biosciences.

Many people in Korea think Ahn is a model husband to let his wife go abroad to study at the age of 40.  But she smiles and said, “He didn’t oppose the idea, but he wasn’t passionate about it either.”

What is it that Chosun Ilbo is trying so hard NOT to say?   Perhaps (as usual) some pictures will provide an unspoken explanation.

In case you were wondering, the Chosun Ilbo “is generally considered to represent the conservative element of South Korean society.”   In that capacity, its editorial outlook is almost always aligned with the programs and candidates of the GNP.   Lunghu’s gonna guess that Park Won-soon won’t have Chosun Ilbo’s endorsement on October 26th.

Watch Your Bak

June 26, 2011

Korean President Lee Myung-bak really needs a summer vacation.  When you’re the titular head of a neo-Confucian polity, you’ve got quite a few ceremonial and ritual obligations.  Even in the 21st century.   In just the past four days alone, President Lee has …

  • congratulated Ban Ki-moon on his re-election as UN General Secretary.
  • exhorted legislators on the National Assembly’s foreign affairs and trade committee to expedite parliamentary passage of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.
  • met with junior scholars to hear about their concerns.
  • presided over a meeting of deliverymen “to check the livelihoods of the people.”   … And then shared their labor.

Here are 4000 words-worth of pictures:

The President knows with whom he should sit ...

How do you say "This side up" in Korean?

There they are again –those man-of-the-people gloves!  Careful observation will establish that the box of DVD burners President Lee is toting off the delivery truck has been manufactured by LG [fka Lucky Goldstar] Corp.  Besides being Korea’s #2 industrial conglomerate, LG has the added advantage of having been founded (in 1947) in Busan, formerly the capital of South Gyeongsang Province.  It should surprise absolutely no one to learn that Busan and South Gyeongsang are core constituencies of President Lee’s Grand National Party.  This photo opportunity is yet another shout-out to the GNP faithful, as well as free advertising for a generous corporate sponsor of President Lee.


Swords Into Plowshares

May 26, 2011

Two weeks ago, Thailand marked the beginning of its rice-growing season with the Royal Plowing Ceremony, a centuries-old ritual rich with omen and celestial portent.  Last week, Cambodia followed suit –although with starkly different soothsaying results.  The Khmer oxen ate from plates containing corn [maize] and beans, but ignored the rice platter.  Not a good sign for paddymen and their families.  Of course, this isn’t the first time that Thais and Khmer have had differences of opinion.

In the colder regions of North Asia, the rice-growing season usually starts later.  In the DPRK, the Dear Leader’s mastery over everything (including Mother Nature herself) didn’t delay the rice-planting schedule:  mechanized swamp-buggies performed their rice-planting ritual for domestic and international media observers shortly after the Thai ceremony occurred.  It’s understandable that North Koreans would want to get a headstart on the countdown to harvest … so that every mouth can beeeeee fed.

In South Korea, no such worries.  On Thursday, President Lee Myung-bak –still smarting from regional legislative elections that saw his governing GNP badly bruised in key areas of the peninsula– himself took the wheel of a rice-planter and performed his ceremonial role.  In Korea, presidents are constitutionally limited to one term (a legacy of/reaction to the Park Chung-hee era), so Lee’s participation in the ritual was not aimed at enhancing his personal political prospects.  Instead, it can be more clearly understood as his cultural obligation in his role as leading patriarch-figure/dynastic-crypto-monarch of a Neo-Confucian society.

As usual, there are additional layers of meaning within and behind the overt [en]action.  Here are some of the cultural strata beneath the rice paddy surface:

Subject:  In the Confucian social hierarchy of virtue and value, the farmer holds second rank, directly beneath the scholar-nobles whose adherence to ritual makes society sustainable.  Farmers merit the second rank because they grow the food that enables everyone else to live.  The ritual performance of farm tasks by the scholar-sovereign re-emphasizes the links and relationships that bind together society’s ranks (as well as the precedence implicit in hierarchical order).  The fact that Lee alone appears in these pictures is an indication that –as sovereign– he alone is in charge and ultimately responsible for carrying out the will of Heaven.

Location:  The chosen (;) rice paddy is located in Chunju, North Chungcheong Province, close to the geographic center of the ROK nation.  Symbolism is one thing, but political pragmatism is another:  North Chungcheong Province is a key swing district in national elections because its political loyalties are rather evenly divided between the GNP (whose core support is in the southeast) and the Democratic Party (primarily based in the southwest provinces).  If your party wants to elect the next president of Korea, you need North Chungcheong votes.

Garb:  President Lee is wearing a dark blue windbreaker (with what appears to be the presidential logo & his title) over a buttoned-up white golf shirt.  The sleeves of the windbreaker are neatly rolled up, and he’s wearing white cotton work gloves as he loads trays of rice seedlings onto the rice-planter hoppers.  He’s also sporting a broad brimmed straw hat.  This clothing may convey several messages.

1]  The windbreaker and golf shirt are Lee’s uniform-of-choice for settings in which it is inappropriate (too high-status) to wear the business suit, which he prefers. (As a side note, Lee caught flak from some quarters earlier this year when he wore traditional Korean costume to deliver his televised New Year’s message to the nation.)  Prior to becoming mayor of Seoul, Lee’s professional background was in the construction industry:  the windbreaker/shirt/tie combination is standard management attire for ceremonial urban construction site visits.  When travelling even further afield into the rural countryside, the necktie is too much for a man-of-the-people to be seen wearing.

2]  White cotton gloves with rubberized, no-slip grip on the palms and fingers are in widespread use by manual laborers of all kinds throughout Korea.  For all Lunghu knows, their use may even be required by workplace safety regulations for certain occupations.  So at the very least, Pres. Lee is conforming to workplace cultural expectations and practices.  At the same time, white gloves = clean hands.  Several of Lee’s political associates have been embroiled in bribery scandals of various kinds (it’s an occupational hazard of Korean politics, and that’s what aides are for).  President Lee is keeping his hands clean.

3]  For centuries, a broad straw hat fastened under the chin with a simple silk cord was traditional headwear for yangban nobility and scholars who traveled to the countryside to visit tenant farmers on their agricultural estates.  A badge of rank (and the quality of their robes) distinguished them from commoners and slaves.  Lee’s hat is of modern design, but carries echoes of the past into the present day.

Technology:  Lee is driving a DaeDong compact tractor (Duo60 model) with a rice-planter attachment.  DaeDong (Great East) produces tractors, combines, rice transplanters and tillers.  The company sells its tractors in the USA under the Kioti (pronounced “coyote“) brandname.  DaeDong Industrial Company Ltd, which is based in Daegu, South Korea, was founded in 1947.  Back in the day, Daegu was part of the Silla Kingdom.  Now, the city of Daegu is has special administrative status as a Metropolitan City located within North Gyeongsang Province.  North Gyeongsang is the heartland of Lee’s GNP, and Daegu is party headquarters.  The choice of tractor is a little shout-out to the homies in Daegu.  Plus ça change

These four aspects of the rice-planting photo op are hidden in plain sight.  Video footage might show even more, and wider shots that included other Koreans in the frame could add further information.  But GNP media wranglers may not have wanted to muddle the message:  President Lee is the learnéd sovereign, he diligently works to improve the lot and lighten the burden of the common man, and thus he carries out the mandate of Heaven.  In difficult times, the people need a simple, familiar message.

Just in case anyone was wondering, Lunghu is not aware of any Korean soothsayers who published predictions about the Korean rice harvest based on the outcome of President Lee’s ceremonial excursion across the Chunju rice paddy.  But some of those crop rows he’s leaving in his wake look a little bit askew … it’s clear that you need a steady hand to guide the wheel of a Daedong tractor.