Sunday, April 22, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part V - The Turning Point

I.  Early Resistance 

From the start, Park Geun-hye was not merely unpopular with South Korea’s liberals. Rather, her election was offensive. Regardless of Park’s fairly legitimate achievements as the conservative party leader, it was clear that most of her appeal derived from her dictator father Park Chung-hee. To Korea's liberals who cut their teeth in politics by fighting against the dictators, the fact that the voters would voluntarily elect as the politician who openly peddled dictatorship nostalgia was repulsive. With the spy agency scandal hobbling the early part of her presidency, Korea’s liberals resisted Park Geun-hye from the very beginning. 

With no warrant, the riot police destroys the glass door of the Kyunghyang Shinmun office,
in an attempt to arrest the striking KORAIL labor union leaders. (source

The first flare-up was in December 2013, when the labor union for KORAIL—the company that runs Korea’s railway system—began a general strike opposing the government’s proposal that would have led to privatizing the rail business. The Park Geun-hye government declared the strike illegal, and obtained the arrest warrant for the labor leaders. More than 4,000 riot police were marshaled to break the strike. With only the arrest warrants (and not a search warrant,) the riot police destroyed the doors of the building that housed the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Korea’s leading labor union. 

The building also housed Kyunghyang Shinmun, a leading liberal newspaper, but that did not matter to the police. In a scene reminiscent of the darkest days of South Korea’s dictatorship, the riot police trashed the offices of a liberal newspaper en route to arresting the labor union leaders (who managed to escape.) In a clear violation of Korea’s labor laws, KORIAL placed all employees who participated in the strike—more than 6,000 workers—on an indefinite administrative leave, effectively firing them. The raid of the proudly militant KCTU sparked a series of strikes and protests, with each demonstration drawing up to 100,000, that lasted until February 2014. 

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, April 09, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part IV - Death, Death Everywhere

[Series Index]

A.            Sleepwalking

The downfall of Park Geun-hye, following a bizarre corruption scandal involving a shaman’s daughter, is perhaps one of the best known stories about South Korean politics. So it may be difficult to believe that, at the time of her election in 2012, it was not unreasonable to admire Park Geun-hye for her political leadership. Of course, everyone knew that the seed money of Park Geun-hye’s political capital was from her dictator father Park Chung-hee. But as a politician, Park Geun-hye could claim genuine achievements.

Park Geun-hye carrying out her party's nameplate to the tent-office, c. 2004.

She led her conservative party through the Roh Moo-hyun administration, during which the party faced multiple dire straits. (Dire straits of their own making, but still.) In 2003, the revelation that the Grand National Party received literally trucks filled with cash (trucks included!) for the 2002 election crushed the party’s credibility. Then in 2004, the GNP impeached Roh Moo-hyun based on a technical violation of the elections law, because Roh had a stray remark supporting the liberal candidates when the elected officials had the duty to remain neutral. The backlash from the transparently partisan impeachment attempt nearly destroyed the conservatives. Park Geun-hye, leader of the GNP at the time, put on one of the greatest political theaters in Korea’s democratic history: she vacated the party’s office, took off the party’s nameplate from the building, and moved the party headquarters to a tent city as a show of penance. Park rescued the conservatives once again in 2012 by holding off the liberal wave fueled by Lee Myung-bak’s deep unpopularity, earning the nickname the “Queen of Elections.”

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part III - the Election of Park Geun-hye

[Series Index]

A.            Into the Night

Having disposed of Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak began implementing in late 2009 the crown jewel of his presidential campaign promises: the Four Rivers Project. Lee Myung-bak, after all, used to be the head of a construction company. Initially, he wanted a “Grand Canal” that would have traversed the whole Korea via waterway—a ridiculous project which would have included (among other insane things) drilling a giant water tunnel through the mountain range in the middle of South Korea to connect two separate rivers. The Grand Canal project became one of the targets of the 2008 candlelight protests, and the Lee administration backed off it, proffering instead the scaled-down version in the Four Rivers Project.

Green algae bloom in Nakdong river. After the Four Rivers Project,
the river would spend up to half a year as a thick green slush. (source)

Even as a scaled-down one, the Four Rivers Project was the largest infrastructure project in Korean history—which is saying something in a country whose entire infrastructure had to be rebuilt from scratch after the Korean War. Costing an eye-popping US $20 billion, the project called for dozens of new dams, dredging riverbeds and beautifying the surrounding areas. The entire project was extremely unnecessary; in fact, in certain areas, the newly constructed dams affirmatively damaged the environment, turning huge stretches of river into a slow-moving green slush that reeked with rotting, dead fish that could no longer breathe in the water.

Other forms of corporate welfare prospered as well. Under Lee Myung-bak, Korea’s largest corporations were encouraged to “liberalize the labor market” through mass layoffs and outsourcing. Labor unions, the reliable redoubt of liberal politics in Korea, fought tooth and nail. The most notable fight was at Ssangyong Motors in the summer of 2009. The Ssangyong Motors, an underperforming auto maker in Korea, conducted a mass layoff of more than 2,600 workers, or nearly 40 percent of its workforce. To stave off the mass layoff, the labor union initially offered a compromise, then began a strike inside the factory. The management cut off food, water and medical supply to the factory and sprayed tear gas from helicopters. Then the police, mixed in with hired goons, broke the strike with rubber bullets and tasers. The fight was so violent that, according to a volunteer psychiatrist for the union, 93 percent of the union members suffered from PTSD.

Riot police breaks up the strike at Ssangyong Motors. (source)

Having physically broken the strike, Ssangyong management offered a final “compromise”— 48 percent of the workers who were set to lose their jobs would be on "unpaid leave" rather than complete dismissal, and no charges against the workers would be filed. The management broke these promises the moment the strike was over, as the police arrested 96 laborers. Nobody who was put on "unpaid leave" would regain his job. Those who managed to keep the job worked murderous hours, as they had to handle the work that was left behind by nearly half of the factory's manpower. A wave of suicides followed the end of the strike, as dozens of labor leaders and their families, suffering from bodily injuries and PTSD, took their lives one by one.

[Here is a post I wrote in 2013 about the suicides at Ssangyong Motors. Check out my concluding paragraph: “as a Korean American, I would like to urge Americans to take a close look at what happened in Korea for the last 15 years, because that is what will happen in America for the next 10 years. The social devastation of the 1997 financial crisis reaches far beyond the elevated suicide rate. In Korea, it has caused the middle class squeeze, ever-higher pressure for education (as it is seen as the only way to improve the worth of human capital,) higher rate of violent crime and more dysfunctional political culture.” How’s that for a prediction?]

(More after the jump.)

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part II - the Lee Myung-bak Years

[Series Index]

A.            Sundown

In 2007, Republic of Korea was concluding a decade of liberal administrations: first one led by Kim Dae-jung, the second one by Roh Moo-hyun. And by early 2007, Roh Moo-hyun’s low approval ratings made it fairly clear that he would not have a liberal successor.

Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moo-hyun

Roh Moo-hyun’s 2002 election itself was a small miracle. Prominent liberal politician Yu Si-min once said being a liberal in Korea was like playing soccer in a field tilted against you. Liberals were fewer in number and split into a number of factions that were barely holding together. Roh managed to overcome the structural deficit through a combination of personal charisma and the perfect storm of events, which included: conservatives trotting out the old and wooden Lee Hoi-chang as the candidate one more time; liberals instituting the primary elections system for the first time, allowing the underdog Roh to dramatically overtake the more established Lee In-je; the sudden uptick of anti-American sentiment due to the Yangju Highway Incident, and so on.

But five years later, Roh’s unlikely triumph was a distant memory. Roh’s flair for the dramatic, which served him so well during the campaign, came to be perceived as childish, petulant and unpresidential—which tired out the general electorate. Much of Roh’s liberal base also abandoned him. He was elected as a brash progressive, but governed as a center-left, pro-U.S. president. Although George W. Bush’s Iraq war repulsed the Korean public (as it did most people around the world,) Roh dutifully sent Korean troops to Iraq. Roh also negotiated for a number of free trade agreements, including one with the United States, which did not please the anti-American faction among Korea’s liberals. From them, Roh would earn the charges of “neoliberalism” and “making a right turn after putting on the left turn signal.”

Lee Myung-bak, the presidential candidate of the conservative Grand National Party, appeared to be the antithesis of Roh: a pragmatic, worldly figure with a steady hand. The most favorable version of Lee’s life story was a rags-to-riches one, paralleling Korea’s rise from the ashes. In 1965, the 24-year-old Lee Myung-bak entered Hyundai Construction as an entry level clerk. At age 48, Lee was the president of Hyundai Construction. Lee entered politics in 1992 as National Assemblyman, and became the mayor of Seoul in 2002. Even his most ardent detractors generally agree that Lee Myung-bak was a fine mayor, as he spearheaded the urban renewal project that revived the decrepit city center into the lively Cheonggyecheon stream. His nickname was “the bulldozer,” someone who gets stuff done.

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part I - Introduction

[Series Index]

Candlelight protests from November 2016
Until about a year ago, the Republic of Korea went through nine years of darkness. In late 2007, and then again in late 2012, Korea elected as presidents the worst versions of themselves: first one was a venal and corrupt businessman, the second one daughter of a murderous dictator. It was nine years of steady erosion of civil liberties and staggering corruption, nine years that genuinely put the future of Korean democracy in doubt—until March 10, 2017, when the Constitutional Court removed Park Geun-hye from presidency following an impeachment vote. For the next several posts, I will tell the story of how these nine years went. 

I tell this story with my home, the United States, in mind. I offer this story as a counsel, a story that is at once inspirational and cautionary. I want to make sure my fellow Americans understand that, although this moment may be a unique one in their lives, it is not unique in the history of democracy. Others have experienced similar moments, in similar circumstances, earlier than Americans have. 

This counsel, I think, is particularly necessary because most Americans have no real experience of living in an unfree society. They have no idea how it feels to live each day in an authoritarian dictatorship. All they have is a paranoid fantasy they saw in the movies, like the cartoonish description of Hitler’s Third Reich. Typical Americans’ imagination of unfreedom does not go much further beyond the SS knocking down your door to snatch your loved ones to a concentration camp. 

But for most people, the day-to-day living in an unfree society does not feel all that different from living in a free society. You wake up in the morning, tend to your spouse and children, have your meals and go to work or school. Even during Hitler’s Third Reich, most Germans did not have their doors knocked by SS. More typical was a life like one lived by Brunhilde Pomsel, secretary of Joseph Goebbels: simply living her life and doing her job, even though the job was typing up Nazi propaganda. 

Instead, what you do have in an unfree society is a vague sense of unspoken boundary around you. Don’t criticize the president. Don’t join labor unions. Don’t say anything good about that foreign country we are supposed to hate. It is only after you cross that boundary do you realize how unfree your society is. For saying the wrong thing, you would lose your job. Your family would be targeted for harassment. The government may detain you indefinitely, and no one will care. A bigot may kill you, and your death will remain uninvestigated and unpunished. 

The mark of an unfree society is the manner in which that boundary gets smaller and smaller. Every day, the list of the people you shouldn’t talk to, the meetings you shouldn’t attend, the topics you shouldn’t broach in public grows a little longer. This is what the Korean people have endured from February 2008 to March 2017, and this is what is happening in America today. 

Fortunately, this is a story with a happy ending. On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court removed Park Geun-hye from presidency following an impeachment vote, ending 3,302 days of conservative rule. A massive series of peaceful protests, which drew an average of a million participants 13 weeks in a row, made this result possible. But it is not a story with a steady progress, with each day in the 3,302 days of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administration being better than the day before. It is a story with many false dawns, dashed hopes, and petty internecine squabbles. It is a story with hundreds of government-caused deaths, the ugliest displays of human cruelty, and long stretches of deep, dark despair. 

By telling the story of Korea, I want my fellow Americans who love freedom and democracy to recognize the historical moment in which they stand, and anticipate what may be coming next. I firmly believe that better days are ahead, but I want my friends to understand the progress will not be a linear one. By looking at the experience of those who traveled down this path before, our journey hopefully will be made faster. 

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Thursday, March 01, 2018

Wakanda and Busan

Lupita Nyong'o in Black Panther

It was the realization that Lupita Nyong’o was the best Korean speaker in Black Panther that jolted me out of the movie’s magic. 

Black Panther is a cultural moment, and deservedly so. It succeeds both as entertainment and as an inspirational piece of film art. Much of the praise for the movie has focused on the movie’s depiction of Wakanda—a fictional African country constructed with so much loving detail that it cannot help but feel real. (This awesome twitter thread showcases some of the details, drawn from various African cultures, that are visible in Black Panther.) 

As a Marvel comics fan, I was ready for the ride. My favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is Captain America: Civil War, and no small part of my love for that movie comes from the fact that it is the first moment I got to watch T’Challa on screen. Probably like many others, I drew a breath when the Wakandan stealth jet slid past the virtual camouflage to fly over the glistening skyscrapers in the hidden city. I was fully lost in the ensuing scenes that made Wakanda seem touchable, breathable. 

So it was more than a little ironic that a depiction of a real city—specifically, Busan, Korea—was the needle-scratch moment for me, taking the scale made of vibranium off my eyes. In a movie about a fictional country, the least real thing was a real city inhabited by 3.4 million people. 

(More after the jump.) 

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Thursday, February 08, 2018

The Ask a Korean! Winter Olympics Travel Guide

PyeongChang Winter Olympics officially opens tomorrow. If you happen to be visiting Korea for the Olympics, let the Korean take you around. Like my last attempt at a travel guide, this is not a collection of "best of"s or "must see"s; it is just a number of things I would suggest if we were friends. If that sounds good, off we go.

Before We Go

Let's go over some super basics. This is where we are going:

We will be hanging out in Gangwon Province, the mountainous eastern seaboard region of Korea. It is not far from Seoul (less than two hours on a high speed train,) but it will feel very different from Seoul. Gangwon has beautiful nature (both mountains and the ocean!) and interesting food that draws from fresh ingredients. Oh, and it will be really, really cold. PyeongChang Olympics may end up being the coldest Winter Olympics ever, with single digit temperature throughout the Games. But don't worry--there is plenty on this trip to make up for the cold weather.

To get in the mood, I'd suggest watching a few Korean movies set in Gangwon, perhaps on the plane ride to Korea. Welcome to Dongmakgol [웰컴 투 동막골], set in a remote, isolated village in Gangwon, features a relevant topic: reconciliation with North Korea. For a movie featuring the stark and striking beauty of Gangwon in winter, I recommend End of Winter [철원기행].

You will likely land in Incheon Airport west of Seoul. (If you want to check out the sights in Seoul, you can take a look at my previous travel suggestions that include a 3-day itinerary for Seoul.) There is a high speed train going directly from the airport to the Olympic sites. The roads are also straight and smooth should you choose to take a bus or drive. On the way there, you can listen to some classic Korean pop music about the winter. My favorite is The Winter Sea [겨울 바다]. At the Ski Resort [스키장에서] is also solid if you want something more upbeat.

Now that we are in the mood, we will get going. Gangwon can be roughly divided into two parts: west and east of the Taebaek Mountain range. PyeongChang is in the west, nestled within the jagged mountain range. But much of the Games (usually involving skating and indoor activities) will also be in Gangneung, a port city on the other side of the mountains. (They are about a 30 minute drive from each other.) Both sides of Gangwon have something different to offer, so do visit both cities at a minimum.

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, January 21, 2018

On North Korea: Thinking about Thinking

Personally, I am sick of talking about North Korea. Just across the demilitarized zone, we have the world's 12th largest economy, a powerhouse of global pop culture, that is about to host the Winter Olympics. Why bother with North Korea?

But North Korea is in the news, which means I get a steady stream of North Korea-related questions on this blog. This is another occasion where I should remind you all that I am just a guy with a blog. All I have to go by is the news, which is available to you just as much as they are available to me. I have no special information to offer.

What I can offer, however, is a framework of analysis; how to think about thinking, when it comes to thinking about North Korea. This alone can be valuable, because much of North Korea analysis involves no thinking, but only reflexes to the latest stimulus. 

On Jan. 21, 2018, North Korean advance delegation arrives at South Korea
For example, the latest coverage about North Korea is its participation in the Winter Olympics, the North Korean team marching under the same flag with the South Korean team during the opening ceremony, and so on. It should be obvious that all of this is inconsequential. The two Koreas have competed jointly in the world athletics off and on since 1991, when a single Korean team played in the World Table Tennis Championship in Japan. These joint appearances have never moved the needle on the inter-Korean relations in either direction, but people keep talking about them because hey, we have to keep talking about North Korea somehow.

Instead of a reflexive reaction, we can choose to think deeply. And deep thought requires a firm establishment of the first principles, in reference to which all the events on the ground and our policy choices are to be assessed. In my view, there are three fundamental questions that establish the first principles about North Korea. They are:
1. May the North Korean state continue to exist?
2. May the Kim Jong-un regime remain in power?
3. Is a war acceptable in the Korean Peninsula?
On the first pass, most people--including most North Korea analysts--would answer "no" to all three questions. Kim Jong-un regime is a murderous dictatorship; no one wants to appear as if she is supporting the regime. A war, which is likely to be a nuclear war, is horrifying beyond imagination, and no one wants to sound like a warmonger.

It is also the case that most people are not honest with themselves.

(More after the jump.)

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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 1. Shin Jung-hyeon

Shin Jung-hyeon [신중현]

Years of Activity: 1959-present. (Last studio album in 2005.)

Note:  Because Shin Jung-hyeon was active during the times when there was no real concept of an "album," his discography is an insane mess that includes the numerous bands for which Shin played only temporarily. The below discography only includes studio albums for solos and bands for which Shin Jung-hyeon was the leader.

Hickey Shin Guitar Melodies - Selection of Light Music [히키-申 기타 멜로듸: 경음악 선곡집] (1959)
The Add4 First Album (1964)
Add4: Shin Jung-hyeon Light Music Arrangement [Add4 - 신중현 경음악 편곡집] (1966)
Add4 - Fun Guitar Twist [Add4 - 즐거운 기타 트위스트] (1968)
Shin Jung-hyeon & Questions [신중현과 퀘션스] (1970)
The Men - Saxophone's Temptations [The Men - 색소폰의 유혹] (1972)
Shin Jung-hyeon & the Coins, the First Album [신중현과 엽전들 1집] (1974)
Shin Jung-hyeon & Yup Juns, Vol. 2 (1974)
Shin Jung-hyeon & Music Power, the First Album [신중현과 뮤직파워 1집] (1976)
Shin Jung Hyun (1980)
Three Travelers [세 나그네] (1983)
Shin Jung-hyeon [신중현] (1988)
Shin Jung-hyeon & Music Power 2 [신중현과 뮤직파워 2] (1994)
Muwijayeon [무위자연] (1994)
Kim Satgat [김삿갓] (1997)
Body & Feel (2002)
City Crane [도시학] (2005)
The Landing [안착] (2005)

Representative Song:  Beauty [미인] from Shin Jung-hyeon & the Coins, the First Album [신중현과 엽전들 1집] (1974)


한 번 보고 두 번 보고 자꾸만 보고 싶네
See her once, see her twice, just want to see her more
아름다운 그 모습을 자꾸만 보고 싶네
Just want to keep seeing that beautiful sight
그 누구나 한 번 보면 자꾸만 보고 있네
Whoever looks just once can't take their eyes away
그 누구의 애인인가 정말로 궁금하네
Whose lover is she, everyone gets curious

모두 사랑을 하네 나도 사랑을 하네
Everyone loves her; I love her too
모두 사랑을 하네 나도 사랑을 하네
Everyone loves her; I love her too

나도 몰래 그 여인을 자꾸만 보고 있네
I keep on looking at her without realizing it
그 모두가 넋을 있고 자꾸만 보고 있네
Everyone keeps looking as if in a trance
그 누구나 한 번 보면 자꾸만 보고 있네
Whoever looks just once can't take their eyes away
그 누구의 애인인가 정말로 궁금하네
Whose lover is she, everyone gets curious

모두 사랑을 하네 나도 사랑을 하네
Everyone loves her; I love her too
모두 사랑을 하네 나도 사랑을 하네
Everyone loves her; I love her too

In 15 words or less:  The Godfather of Korean pop music.

Why is this artist important?
Here we are now, finally at the top of the mountain. I consider Seo Taiji to have created an entire generation of individuals in his mold. What could be more influential than that?

How about coming up with the model of "musicianship" for the first time? Popular music existed in Korea before Shin Jung-hyeon. As early as the 1930s, Korea (even as a Japanese colony) had a healthy urban culture that featured recorded music and pop stars. But the pop stars of the time were hardly separable from, say, a circus act. Indeed, they often were a circus act, as the Korean pop singers of the early 20th century often performed as a part of a giant variety show (of the kind that is now almost exclusively available in casinos,) nestled somewhere within a sequence involving a movie, a skit, a dance number, a comedy routine and an animal act.

This is the world in which Shin Jung-hyeon grew up. Orphaned during the Korean War, Shin grew up at a distant relative's house and took up guitar as a teenager. His first gigs--like nearly everyone's gigs in Korea in the 1950s--were with the USFK clubs, playing American music for the GIs stationed in Seoul. Fundamentally, those shows were not much different from the variety shows of the 1930s. Shin Jung-hyeon himself found popularity as a kind of a circus act, as he was known as the short guitarist who would deftly continue playing while sliding in and out between the legs of the taller bassist.

But Shin Jung-hyeon rose above being an act, to become an artist. Not merely a source of entertainment, but an individual expressing his aesthetics through popular music. Shin Jung-hyeon is the first Korean singer-songwriter who organized his music into an "album," a thematically consistent collection of his original creation. And original it was! Shin Jung-hyeon's Beauty would go into the annals of the global rock music history, with its pentatonic sound based on Korean traditional music.

As Korea's pop culture came into its own in the 1970s, Shin Jung-hyeon continued to play a critical role as a composer and producer for the greatest artists of K-pop history such as Pearl Sisters and Kim Chu-ja. Yet a cruel twist of history cut off Shin Jung-hyeon's further flourishing. For refusing to write a song praising the Park Chung-hee dictatorship, Shin was charged with trumped-up allegations of drug use, and his songs were banned in 1975 and remained so until 1987. Banned from even from performing, Shin spent a stretch of time selling away his equipment piece by piece. It was not until the late 1990s that his legacy was rediscovered and re-evaluated, as music critics--also a new profession that had recently come of age--began to reflect on the giants who shaped the history of Korean pop music.

Interesting trivia:  Shin Jung-hyeon is the sixth artist in the world, and the first in Asia, to receive a personalized commemorative guitar from Fender.

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Monday, January 01, 2018

Happy New Year, and a Quick Look Back on 2017

Happy New Year! Here is a day-late look back at the most popular AAK! posts of 2017, by the number of page views.

Most Viewed Posts of 2017 (All-Time Posts)

1.  The Irrational Downfall of Park Geun-hye [Link]
2.  Counting in Sino-Korean [Link]
3.  Going to College in Korea [Link]
4.  Becoming a Doctor in Korea [Link]
5.  What Became of Korea's Royal Family? [Link]

The blog's most popular post ever, about the impeachment of Park Geun-hye written in late 2016, is still going strong. But beyond that, whoa! Not sure what happened, but suddenly the old articles about weight loss and dating Korean men have slipped off the top five. I really thought those would top the list as long as the blog shall live, but I suppose the blog is in fact getting old.

Most Viewed Posts of 2017 (Written in 2017)

1.  Korea's Alt-Right, and How to Fight the Ones at Home [Link]
2.  Discussing the Candidates for Korea's Presidential Election [Link]
3.  K-pop is not a Genre [Link]
4.  Annotated Opinion of the Constitutional Court Impeaching Park Geun-hye [Link]
5.  The Bigotry Against Korean Democracy [Link]

2017 was a year, wasn't it? I never wanted to write too much about Korean politics because I always thought the topic was too much insider baseball, but here it is--four of the top five posts are about politics.

Thank you everyone for reading; I don't deserve it, but thank you anyway. Have a wonderful holiday season.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 2. Seo Taiji

[Series Index]

2.  Seo Taiji [서태지]

Years of Activity: 1992-present. (Last studio album in 2014.)

Discography (studio albums only):

As a member of Seo Taiji & Boys [서태지와 아이들]
Seotaiji and Boys [서태지와 아이들] (1992)
Seotaiji and Boys II (1993)
Seotaiji and Boys III (1994)
Seotaiji and Boys IV (1995)

As a solo act
Seo Tai Ji (1998)
Seo Taiji 6th Album (2003)
Seo Taiji 7th Issue (2004)
Atomos (2009)
Quiet Night (2014)

Representative Song:  Classroom Idea [교실 이데아] from Seo Taiji and Boys III (1994)

교실 이데아
Classroom Idea

됐어 됐어 이제 됐어
That's it, that's it, now that's it
이제 그런 가르침은 됐어
That's it with this kind of education
그걸로 족해 족해 이제 족해
That's enough, enough, now it's enough
내 사투리로 내가 늘어 놓을래
Now I'm going to say in my own dialect

매일 아침 일곱 시 삼십 분까지
Every morning by seven thirty
우릴 조그만 교실로 몰아넣고
They put us in a small classroom
전국 구백만의 아이들의 머리 속에
In the heads of the nine million children around the country
모두 똑같은 것만 집어 넣고 있어
All the same things are being crammed in
막힌 꽉 막힌 사방이 막힌 널
Blocked, totally blocked, blocked in all directions you are
그리곤 덥썩 그 모두를 먹어삼킨 이 시꺼먼 교실에서만
Then gulp! swallowing everyone is the black classroom
내 젊음을 보내기는 너무 아까워
My youth is utterly wasted in it

좀 더 비싼 너로 만들어 주겠어
We'll make a more expensive version of you
니 옆에 앉아 있는 그 애보다 더
More expensive then the kid sitting next to you
하나씩 머리를 밟고 올라서도록 해
Take each step over other people's head
좀 더 잘난 네가 될 수가 있어
You can be a little better than you are now
왜 바꾸지 않고 마음을 조이며 젊은 날을 헤멜까
Why not change; why let your heart wither, wandering in your youth
왜 바꾸지 않고 남이 바꾸길 바라고만 있을까
Why not change; why only wait for someone else to change

됐어 됐어 이제 됐어
That's it, that's it, now that's it
이제 그런 가르침은 됐어
That's it with this kind of education
그걸로 족해 족해 이제 족해
That's enough, enough, now it's enough
내 사투리로 내가 늘어 놓을래
Now I'm going to say in my own dialect

국민학교에서 중학교로 들어가며
From elementary to middle school,
고등학교를 지나 우릴 포장센타로 넘겨
Through high school they send us to the packaging center
겉보기 좋은 널 만들기위해
To make you more presentable
우릴 대학이란 포장지로 멋지게 싸 버리지
They wrap us grandly with the wrapper called college
이젠 생각해봐 '대학'
Now think about it. College!
본 얼굴은 가린채 근엄한 척 할 시대가 지나버린 걸
The time to hide your true face, the time to pretend to be serious is over
좀 더 솔직해봐 넌 할 수 있어
Be more honest, you can do it

좀 더 비싼 너로 만들어 주겠어
We'll make a more expensive version of you
니 옆에 앉아 있는 그 애보다 더
More expensive then the kid sitting next to you
하나씩 머리를 밟고 올라서도록 해
Take each step over other people's head
좀 더 잘난 네가 될 수가 있어
You can be a little better than you are now
왜 바꾸지 않고 마음을 조이며 젊은 날을 헤멜까
Why not change; why let your heart wither, wandering in your youth
왜 바꾸지 않고 남이 바꾸길 바라고만 있을까
Why not change; why only wait for someone else to change

됐어 됐어 이제 됐어
That's it, that's it, now that's it
이제 그런 가르침은 됐어
That's it with this kind of education
그걸로 족해 족해 이제 족해
That's enough, enough, now it's enough
내 사투리로 내가 늘어 놓을래
Now I'm going to say in my own dialect

In 15 words or less:  Creator of modern Korean pop culture.

Why is this artist important?
Does Seo Taiji deserve to be the second most influential K-pop artist ever?

Of course, Seo Taiji was and is a massive star. He is nicknamed the "Cultural President." The news of his divorce from the wife that he managed to hide 14 years made the front page--the actual front page, not the front page of the entertainment section--of every newspaper in Korea. But in terms of stardom, Jo Yong-pil was bigger. In fact, one could make a solid argument that even Kim Geon-mo, a contemporary of Seo Taiji, was bigger. One can argue Seo Taiji and Boys was the early example of a successful boy band, but then again, not really--Sobangcha [소방차] was the first K-pop boy band from 1987, and they were very successful at their peak.

Was Seo Taiji the most innovative with music? Maybe--he did introduce a lot of new genres to Korean pop music. He was the first rapper that found popular success. Seo Taiji's rap-dance format, with a rap followed by chorus, is still the prevalent mode of K-pop idol music. His use of taepyeongso [태평소], a Korean traditional trumpet, was groundbreaking. But arguably, Sanullim was more innovative in terms of creating something no one has heard before. For all his musical talents, Seo Taiji was plagued with allegations of plagiarizing US artists like Milli Vanilli, Cypress Hill or Korn.

But Seo Taiji did something more than being a star, or even being a musician. Seo Taiji deserves this placement because he singlehandedly created a new culture, populated with a new kind of people. The "New Generation" [신세대] was on the rise in Korea in the 1990s, and Seo Taiji was their champion. When the government censored his song, he rebelled until the government repealed the censorship law. When he saw most of Seo Taiji and Boys' earnings going to the production company, he quit the company and started his own, which led to fairer copyright protection for artists. Rather than offering himself to be consumed by the gossipy media, Seo Taiji tightly controlled the presentation of his image, disappearing for years between albums.

Seo Taiji did not just sing and play music. He showed young Koreans how to live as an individual, how to think independently, how to be a master of his own destiny. There have been K-pop bigger stars than Seo Taiji. There have been better musicians. But no one shaped an entire generation and beyond quite like Seo Taiji did.

Interesting trivia:  For their fourth album, Seo Taiji and Boys appeared in snowboarding clothes, which were virtually unseen in Korea at the time. Seo Taiji is usually credited with introducing the snowboarding culture to Korea for the first time.

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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 3. Jo Yong-pil

[Series Index]

3.  Jo Yong-pil [조용필]

Years of Activity: 1972-present. (Last studio album in 2013.)

Discography (studio albums only):

Jo Yong-pil Stereo Hit Album [조용필 스테레오 힛트 앨범] (1972)
Beloved [님이여] (1976)
Jo Yong-pil [조용필] (1980)
Jo Yong-pil Representative Music Collection [조용필 대표곡 모음] (1980)
Jo Yong-pil Vol. 2 [조용필 Vol. 2] (1980)
Jo Yong-pil Third Album [조용필 제3집] (1981)
Jo Yong-pil [조용필] (1982)
Jo Yong-pil 5 [조용필 5] (1983)
Jo Yong-pil Sixth Album [조용필 6집] (1984)
Jo Yong-pil Seventh Album [조용필 7집] (1985)
Jo Yong-pil Vol. 8 [조용필 Vol. 8] (1985)
'87 Love and Life and I! ['87 사랑과 인생과 나!] (1987)
Jo Yong-pil Tenth Album Part I [조용필 제10집 Part I] (1988)
Jo Yong-pil Tenth Album Part II [조용필 제10집 Part II] (1989)
'90-Vol. 1 Sailing Sound (1990)
Cho Yong Pil 14 (1992)
Cho Yong Pil 15 (1994)
Eternally Cho Yong Pil 16 (1997)
Ambition (1998)
Over the Rainbow (2003)
Hello (2013)

Representative Song:  Woman Outside the Window [창밖의 여자] from Jo Yong-pil (1980)

창밖의 여자
Woman Outside the Window

창가에 서면 눈물처럼 떠오르는 그대의 흰 손
When I stand by the window, your white hand wells up like tears
돌아서서 눈 감으면 강물이어라
Turn around and close my eyes, it is a river
한 줄기 바람 되어 거리에 서면
When I turn myself into a breeze of wind and stand on the streets
그대는 가로등 되어 내 곁에 머무네
You turn into a street light and stay by my side

누가 사랑을 아름답다 했는가
Who said love was beautiful
누가 사랑을 아름답다 했는가
Who said love was beautiful
차라리 차라리 그대의 흰 손으로 나를 잠들게 하라
I'd rather, I'd rather have your white hand put me to sleep

In 15 words or less:  The King.

Why is this artist important?
In many ways, Jo Yong-pil is the bridge that connects K-pop of the 1960s into the golden era of the 1990s. Jo is in the last generation of the USFK club musicians, having started his music career as a 19-year-old guitarist for the clubs in 1969. Yet rather than looking back to the 1960s, Jo Yong-pil was a modernizing force in every aspect of music he touched. His debut hit Come Back to the Busan Port [돌아와요 부산항에] from 1972 opened a new era in trot, setting the familiar pentatonic scale onto the rock'n roll-like eight-track beat. His 1985 hit Void [허공] is the first pop song in K-pop history that had a music video. Jo Yong-pil is the only artist in Korean pop music history to have a chart-topping hit in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2010s, spanning the eras of LP, cassette tape, CD and online streaming.

Jo Yong-pil's strength is his versatility. A true singer-songwriter, Jo composed and arranged nearly every one of his hits. (Reportedly, Jo Yong-pil composed Woman Outside the Window in 15 minutes.) Although he debuted as a trot singer, soon he explored rock'n roll, ballad, blues, Korean traditional music, opera and electronica--and made all of them a hit.

But all of this is merely a background to this undeniable fact of his influence: Jo Yong-pil was the greatest pop star in Korean pop music history. For a whole decade in the 1980s, Jo Yong-pil was practically the only show in Korean pop music. When he held a concert, the Seoul Metro added trains and ran them two more hours into the night. To be sure, at least some of his dominance owes to the fact that the Park Chung-hee dictatorship sent many of the most promising pop musicians to prison for trumped-up drug charges, creating a vacuum in competition. But this remains true: no one in K-pop history can match his utter dominance in popularity. No musician in Korean pop music, however cocky and self-assured, dared to challenge Jo Yong-pil's mantle as gawang [가왕]: the "king of music."

Interesting trivia:  Incredibly for such an accomplished musician, Jo Yong-pil did not have the copyright to many of his greatest hits. Based on the pre-modern practice in K-pop that lingered into the early 90s, Jo's record company owned the copyrights. It took a lengthy legal battle and negotiations for Jo Yong-pil to regain the copyrights.

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

Friday, December 22, 2017

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 4. Lee Mi-ja

[Series Index]

Here we are: Tier 1. The four greatest. The Mount Rushmore of Korean pop music history. For this section, there is no second guesses about whether they should be ranked higher or lower. Their names are now etched in greatness; the precise ranking no longer matters.

We enter the Tier with an old time legend.

4.  Lee Mi-ja [이미자]

Years of Activity: 1959-present. (Last studio album in 1989.)

[Note: because Lee Mi-ja was active during the time when copyright was virtually unknown in Korea, her discography is an insane mess of unauthorized compilations, re-releases and double albums with other artists. Here, I only included albums in which Lee was the only artist.]

Jeongdongdaegam Original Soundtrack [영화주제가 정동대감] (1965)
Lee Mi-ja Masterpiece Second [이미자 걸작 2집] (1965)
Lee Mi-ja Homecoming Special [이미자 귀국특집] (1965)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Songs Third [이미자 스테레오 힛트송 3집] (1967)
Lee Mi-ja, Composed by Go Bong-san [이미자 - 고봉산 작곡집] (1968)
Stereo Hit Songs Second, Movie Soundtracks by Lee Mi-ja [스테레오 힛트쏭 2집: 영화주제가 by 이미자] (1968)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Fifth [이미자 스테레오 힛트 5집] (1968)
Lee Mi-ja Hit Major Selections Sixth [이미자 힛트주제가선 6집] (1968)
Lee Mi-ja, Composed by Park Chun-seok [이미자 - 박춘석 작곡집] (1969)
Latest Hit Selections Tenth by Lee Mi-ja [최신 히트선곡 제10집 by 이미자] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja Solo Eleventh [이미자 독집 제11집] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja, Composed by Park Chun-seok [이미자 - 박춘석 작곡집] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Solo Eighth [이미자 스테레오 독집 제8집] (1970)
Lady Ihwa [이화부인] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Selections Twelveth [이미자 스테레오 히트선곡 제12집] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Solo [이미자 스테레오 독집] (1971)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Songs First [이미자 스테레오 힛트송 제1집] (1972)
'89 Lee Mi-ja ['89 이미자] (1989)

Representative Song:  Lady Camellia [동백아가씨] from 1964. (Recorded in Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Songs First [이미자 스테레오 힛트송 제1집] (1972))

Lady Camellia

헤일 수 없이 수많은 밤을
The numerous nights, impossible to be counted
내 가슴 도려내는 아픔에 겨워
Suffering through the pain that cuts through the heart
얼마나 울었던가 동백아가씨
Lady Camellia, how she has cried
그리움에 지쳐서 울다 지쳐서
Tired from longing, tired from crying
꽃잎은 빨갛게 멍이 들었오
The petal bruised in red

동백꽃잎에 새겨진 사연
The story etched onto the camellia petals
말못할 그 사연을 가슴에 안고
Holding in the heart the tale that cannot be told
오늘도 기다리는 동백아가씨
Lady Camellia, she is still waiting today
가신 님은 그 언제 그 어느날에
When will, on what day will the departed beloved
외로운 동백꽃 찾아 오려나
Would come visit the lonely camellia flower

In 15 words or less:  The greatest trot singer in K-pop history.

Why is this artist important?
I know what you're thinking, but stay with me here. You have to first understand how important of a genre trot has been in the history of Korean pop music--then you will understand how Lee Mi-ja, the greatest name in Korean trot history, belongs to the K-pop Mount Rushmore.

Trot is the only genre in the 80-year history of Korean pop music that completed the entire life cycle of a musical genre: birth - peak - decline - modern revival - elevation to the classics. Originating in the 1930s, trot was the very first pop music of Korea, and for decades, the only pop music of Korea. In fact, the word yuhaengga--literally, "popular music"--in the 1930s exclusively meant trot songs.

Trot was dominant until the late 1960s, when American pop music began entering the Korean pop music scene. But improbably, trot kept coming back each time by reinventing itself, incorporating elements from the new wave. Even today, as trot as a standalone genre is unmistakably fading out of the K-pop mainstream, trot is leaving its musical DNA into the latest generation of Korean pop music. For example, listen to I Love You by 2NE1. Take away the pretty faces and the modern music video, and it's a trot song with a faster beat. Trot is an indispensable part of the history of Korean pop music, and its influence today is everywhere.

So of course, the greatest figure in Korean trot history must join the top tier. And there is little dispute who is the greatest. Lee Mi-ja has been a towering figure for three decades, singing more than 2,000 songs during her career. (The precise number is 2,070, a record in Korean pop music.) She is the first female Korean singer to sell more than 10 million copies of her album.

Yet Lee's time was hardly when trot was the only game in town. The end of Korean War meat a huge number of US soldiers stationed in Seoul, which meant a steady stream of the latest American pop music. Suddenly, trot was old and busted, backwards music for the backwards times.

Lee Mi-ja reversed the trend by modernizing trot. Compared to the trot singers of the previous decades, Lee sings clearly and straightforwardly, eschewing the tremor that characterized the earlier singers. Yet she projected a strictly conservative and traditional image of a woman, preferring hanbok and singing about a female figure consigned to a helpless lot. It is not quite the wokeness we would have liked in the present day, but her combination of progressive singing and traditional image resonated strongly with the Koreans of the 1960s and 70s, who were propelling their country into first world status at a breakneck pace. This would be the template for all female trot singers who would follow her.

Interesting trivia:  Lee Mi-ja's popularity transcended the DMZ, as she is one of the few South Korean pop singers who had a solo concert in Pyongyang. She held a concert there in 2002 after having been invited by North Korea.

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