Friday, June 12, 2009

Shedding light on the "black box"

Current TV journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling were sentenced Monday to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp

The case of San Francisco-based Current TV journalists Euna Lee (a Korean-American) and Laura Ling, who were sentenced by a North Korean court earlier this week to 12 years in a labor camp for illegal entry and an unspecified "hostile" act, has been grabbing a fair amount of coverage in the South Korean press. The story has even topped reports of another disturbing detainment case involving one of the country's own, a South Korean employee of the the inter-Korean Gaeseong Industrial Complex who's been held in the North since March 30 on charges of criticizing Pyongyang and trying to lure a North Korean worker into defection.

Covering North Korea can be both professionally challenging and potentially dangerous for journalists. Scoop-seeking reporters can hardly resist the temptation to snag exclusive photos across the heavily guarded border, and those who actually work their way into the secretive state are considered the lucky few, even if they're mostly fed propaganda and presented with an inaccurately attractive view of the place. But as long as the North remains an elusive, trash-talking, rights-violating nuclear threat, people will look to journalists to provide an inside look, however narrow it may be, into Kim Jong-il's bizarre regime. Although media reports have been fact-based and offer little editorial comment about Lee and Ling's case, I've heard several comments suggesting the reporters should be punished for hindering U.S. diplomatic efforts with North Korea, if not by North Korea then by their own government. Pyongyang is widely considered to be using the Americans as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Obama administration, a tangled mess that many would agree didn't need additional knots.

This week I had the opportunity to interview someone who faces the challenges of covering North Korea on a daily basis, KBS domestic television reporter Lee Woong-soo (pictured at left). Mr. Lee's comments were included in Thursday's edition of Seoul Calling. Here's a transcript of the interview:

AR: Can you explain some challenges you face as a reporter when covering stories about North Korea?

LWS: North Korea is commonly known as the 'Black box' because it's extremely hard to gain access. This is very inconvenient for a reporter. Materials and data are also very rare. All the information we get is from either Rodong Newspaper or KRT(Korean Central News Agency), which are North Korea's own news sources. There are also North Korean defectors, but their information is very restricted and hard to verify.

AR: Do you think coverage of North Korea has changed under the Lee Myung-bak administration?

LWS: Of course it has. Not only between the North and South but also between the North Korea and America so as a whole, the news content has become fairly negative. The maintenance of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, missiles and nuclear tests, to name a few. It seems as if this state will continue for some time now. Regarding the past, diplomatic conversation almost always followed extreme circumstances, so hopefully, this tension will soon ease.

AR: As a reporter, do you find it frustrating to cover stories about a secretive nation?

LWS: As I've mentioned earlier, North Korea is a strictly controlled nation. It not only controls the citizens but also the flow of information, both in and out. No other country can match their system of control. North Korea only reveals information that works in their favour. Besides, The North's and South's relationship has worsened recently so it's even harder to gain access. North Korean related materials are difficult to verify so if anything happens in the North we feel extremely trapped.

AR: What do you think the South Korean people want to know about North Korea?

LWS: South Koreans want to know a lot about North Korea. Almost everything, to be clear. They want to know the North's way of thinking, and living. Because North Korean problems have a great political, economical, and social influence on the South and because of the belief that one day we will unite as one whole nation. The issue of the day might be the North Korean regime, or in other words, the destiny of Kim Jong-il's regime.

AR: Do you think journalists who cover North Korea have a responsibility to avoid dangerous situations that may impact their country’s diplomatic efforts with the North?

LWS: I think so, yes. The media should work towards keeping an eye on National Policy and informing the public, but not towards hurting national interests. Of course national interests should be differed from interests of the regime. Diplomatic issues are often [dealt with] in privacy. Especially the North. So the media should find a means of balance between the public's right to know and protecting national interests. Neither slanting towards the other. It's a very sensitive issue, like walking on a tightrope.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Democratic fervor continues 22 years after historic movement

Wednesday marked the 22nd anniversary the June 10th, 1987 pro-democracy movement that led to South Korea's first direct presidential elections. Koreans struggled for their still-young democracy and now they're using their hard-fought rights to speak out against the current Lee Myung-bak government. This year's June 10th commemoration comes on the heels of the death of a former president known for his efforts toward democratization. His suicide added fuel to the fire of government opponents who accuse the Lee administration of infringing basic freedoms, such as the right to assemble and freedom of speech. Despite a police ban on yesterday's demonstration, some 30-thousand people flooded Seoul Plaza downtown. They were joined by about 12-thousand police officers. Although police attributed the ban to the chance that the gathering could turn violent and disruptive, the event was mostly peaceful. Local media are highlighting some isolated scuffles between police and demonstrators, but compared with the anti-U.S. beef rallies that grabbed international media attention last year for their violent clashes, yesterday's gathering was much less volatile.
Thursday's Seoul Calling program features interviews with some rally participants. My Seoul Calling co-host, Matt Kelley, and I were on the scene Wednesday evening. Thanks to Matt for these photos, which he shot while I conducted interviews.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lady-friendly Seoul

Ladies only parking in Mokdong, western Seoul.
It's fun to imagine what the half-circle could be if not a skirt. Surfboard? Sunset?

In late April the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced plans to make Korea more female-friendly. Sounds great to those of my variety, but some the ideas put forth by the overwhelmingly male-staffed government to reach this goal are at the same time humorous and mildly offensive. Parking spaces designated as ladies-only have been a big media attraction. Complete with pink paint and skirted icons, the spaces certainly brighten up the city's public parking areas. Perhaps its not the idea itself that's questionably altruistic, but the way in which officials and media are describing it. Take, for example, this passage from the Korea Times:

The spaces will be painted pink with emblems of women in the center. The special parking lots will be longer and wider than normal parking spaces.

I guess stereotypes of female drivers are cross-cultural. Some web browsing tells me ladies-only spaces in other Korean cities may utilize differnet emblems to keep men at bay. Although the design below is purtier, I prefer the more elusive skirt/surfboard/sunset option.

Iksan opts for floral feminine markers

Although I don't drive in Seoul, I'd be more inclined to take advantage of the exclusive spots in a huge city where vehicles are plentiful and parking is scarce than to complain about sexism. The female-only spots are also reportedly well lit and located nearer elevators, exits, and security guards.

The media's go-to government spokesperson on this issue is Assistant Mayor for Women and Family Affairs Cho Eun-hee. Ms. Cho told the Korea Times, "It is like adding a female touch to a universal design and make things more comfortable for women."

Ladies only spots flank Yeouido Park

The she-spots, as my friend Matt likes to call them, are just part of the city's plan to make the ladies happy. In fact, the "Women Friendly Seoul" initiative is a 95-million dollar endeavor which includes installing nearly 7,000 female toilets around the capital and replacing heel-eating brick sidewalks with a more stiletto-friendly squishy surface. Personally, I'm a big fan of the bouncy sidewalks. Some even offer a deceptive brick-like design that once made my sister-in-law believe she had drunk one two many glasses of soju with dinner.

You can see a green squishy sidewalk in the back, left corner

Spicing up public transportation

Decorations abound in Seoul area public transportation these days. Silk flowers grace the interiors of city buses that serve my home-work route, along with banners declaring something about love, flowers, and Gwangmyeong City. I remember similar scenes aboard the same buses around this time last year, so it's possible the floral outpouring is in observance of May's family-focused holidays (Children's Day on the 5th, Parent's Day on the 8th) and Teacher's Day on the 15th.

Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera in hand over the weekend when I noticed strings of fake garlic hanging overhead in my subway train. The garlic, along with some scary-looking faux birds (I'm an ornithophobe), plastic crabs, and posters with scenic shots of Korea's western coastline were promoting the city of Taean. The region was struck by the nation's worst oil spill in December 2007. Since then, you can imagine why the once bustling fishing town has seen a decrease in visitors anxious to taste the local fare. Recent news reports say the water is clear these days, and the residents are no doubt hoping the government's efforts to draw visitors back will prove effective. KBS colleage Sarah Jun recently visited Taean and said she didn't encounter many crowds during her visit, but she did reluctantly indulge in some clams, from which she reported no ill side effects!

I'll try to catch the Taean subway car (Line 1) sometime this week and share some shots of the non-odoriferous garlic. (In my experience, public transport around Korea is already plenty redolent of garlic fields.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

To all the teachers who told me to shut my trap . . .

Because I was born on July 25, 1982, in the wee hours of the morning my wealth in life (although still unrealized) will come from my mouth. That's according to a fortune teller in Seoul's Myeongdong neighborhood to whom my friend Maria and I paid a visit Sunday evening. Fortune telling is called 사주 (saju) in Korean and practitioners are generally well-respected and curiously trusted. After asking for your four pillars -- year, month, day, and hour of your birth -- fortune tellers consult something of a trade bible of Chinese characters that apparently tells them when you'll marry, what kind of career you'll have, and possibly that your body will have a difficult time breaking down alcohol in your later years (at least that's what my fortune teller told me--bummer).

Fortune telling is quite popular in South Korea with "professionals" commanding about 50 bucks for some quick projections about career, love, and health. Venues ranging from ramshackle street kiosks equipped with kerosene heaters through Seoul's brutal winter to stylish coffee shops draw intrigued customers around the clock. Some fortune tellers sell their wares over the phone or through the Internet. The fortune telling business booms around the beginning of the year but it seems to attract customers year round.

Maria's reading

Maria served as an eager interpreter through my reading, expressing what the fortune teller was saying through at times extremely comical direct translation . As Maria delivered each prediction in English, the fortune teller would pause, lock eyes with me, and nod repeatedly with a solemn stare, coaxing me into belief. I took hurried but comprehensive notes. Here are a few of the things my fortune teller predicted:

-There will be many students in my future; I will likely teach at a university (woo hoo!)
-I make money with my mouth (direct translation)
-My words are like a never-ending waterfall and public speaking is my strong point
-This year or next would be a good year for me to get married
-The end of this year will be very busy for me and will likely include a major move or travel and a new job
-My character won't change as I grow old
-My parents really like my boyfriend
-I'll work professionally into old age
-My health is good, but my body will have problems breaking down alcohol later in life
-November 2009 will be a lucky month for me

The cafe walls are plastered in customers' post-reading reactions

Maria with a recap

Sunday, April 19, 2009


In late March, I finally took the opportunity to explore South Korea's second largest city, Busan, which also happens to be the world's fifth largest seaport. Located on Korea's southern coast, Busan is a popular destination for beachcombers, foreign sailors, Japanese tourists, and perhaps in 2020, Olympians. Busan is vying to play host to the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Enjoying some hwae (sushi) on Haeundae Beach. Photo by Matt Kelley.

A chilly Haeundae Beach

Now that you have the same image of Busan I had before seeing it in person--seafood, sandy beaches, colorful vistas--I can't help but share my actual first impression of the city. My KTX train chugged into town after dark on a Saturday evening and, since my cronies were stuck in traffic an hour away, I spent my first two hours upon arrival perusing the vicinity of the station. I was quickly lured into "Chinatown," a neighborhood seemingly inoccuous from afar. Despite the oriental moniker, once I ventured past the red lanterns hanging around the perimeter I began to wonder if I had somehow detrained in Vladivostok. The area may be the closest thing Busan has to a Chinatown, but it's every bit as much Russian sailorville, Southeast Asian prostitiuteburg, and American GI City. I suppose it's just like me to unknowlingly head straight for the seediest part of town, and then start taking pictures.

Chinatown, a.k.a. "Texas Street"

Thankfully, there's plenty to enjoy beyond Busan's mixing bowl of international vice. The ports, beaches, narrow alleyways, and cool bridges are all fun to check out on foot, but my favorite part of the trip was viewing the city from the sky. A trip up Busan Tower reveals a colorful, hilly port city oddly reminiscent of Latin America and San Francisco all at once. It sure ain't Seoul!

Haeundae is one of the nation's most famous beaches, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every weekend during warm-weather months. Unfortuantely for ornithophobes like me, it's also a hot spot for pigeons, seagulls, and the crazies who like to feed them. If I ever decide to overcome my fear through shock therapy, Haeundae would be a prime location to undergo treatment.

My worst nightmare on Haeundae Beach. Photo by Matt Kelley

For more detailed information about Busan, check out Matt Kelley's Discovering Korea blog.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul

Seoul's largest wholesale fish market, Noryangjin, is located on the southeastern outskirts of Yeouido amid the shadows of the imposing skyscrapers of the capital city's "Manhattan". Follow your nose to the fish market and you'll feel like you've crossed over to the proverbial other side of the tracks. Goodbye glitzy Trump building, hello dingy fish town!

Since I paid my visit in the evening, I missed out on the lively, fast-paced market atmosphere. For that, I'd have to hit Noryangjin in the wee hours of the morning when vendors from 700ish individual shops bid on the day's catch. Around 7pm, the market was quieter than I had expected, with retailers surly feeling the fatigue of a long day's work and suited businesspeople looking for some after-work grub. The vinyl-aproned staff of Noryangjin's shops are obviously accustomed to the wide eyes and camera flashes of tourists, and I was surprised by how amenable most vendors were to my particuarly intrusive photo-snapping style.

The wide array of sea life was a bit overwhelming for a novice, and coming from a country where consumers are largely removed from the process of how a creature becomes cuisine, it felt a little strange selecting a live fish to be killed, sliced, and served on the spot. Thankfully, my KBS cohorts were experienced shoppers and hagglers.

After bargaining for whatever fits your fancy, market employees quickly and deftly turn live swimmers into sashimi. Then they neatly arrange the fish on sturdy paper plates, complete with little oniony garnishes. The remaining carcass is bagged up and saved for a reappearance in tasty soup. Save room for the eyeballs!

One of Noryangjin's greatest features is its adjacent restaurants where you can round out your experience, and your belly, by digging right into your purchase. All the necessary accouterments (soy sauce, wasabi, lettuce, kimchi) are on hand, and restaurant staff begins cooking your fish remnant soup while you get started on the raw fish. It's not fancy, but it was fresh and very economical. My group of six paid about $20 each for as much sashimi, fish soup, seafood pancake (해물파전), and soju we could handle.