Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Do you know? Dokdo belongs to Korea" (Does it?!)

A few months ago my brother and I were having a discussion about Asian politics, particularly Korean and Japanese issues, since I live in Seoul and he's lived in Japan for nearly ten years. I made reference to Dokdo (독 도), a group of rocky islets inhabited by just a handful of people in the waters between Korea and Japan. Ownership over the outcroppings has been heavily disputed for centuries. Josh had no idea what I was talking about when I said, "Dokdo." He said, "You mean 'Takeshima'?" Had another person been involved in the conversation, it could have become even more convoluted. Dokdo is also known as Takshima, the Liancourt Rocks, and the Hornet Islands, depending on who you're talking to. As the conversation progressed I realized we were each speaking about the controversial islets from the perspective of our resident countries. I used "Dokdo" and "East Sea", while Josh used "Takeshima" and "Sea of Japan". Furthermore, even as a foreigner with no stake in the issue, I found myself getting defensive of the Korean perspective, railing against Japanese imperialism and historic colonization.

This dispute between two rural Illinois siblings is ironically indicative of the larger picture. Korea claims absolute sovereignty over Dokdo, while Japan has repeatedly claimed over the years that Takeshima is Japanese territory. The controversy spikes every so often and most recently when Japan suggested it would claim territorial rights over the islets in upcoming school textbooks. Meanwhile, the United States didn't make things easier for Korea when its Board on Geographic Names categorized the islets as having "undesignated sovereignty". The BGN's designations are used as the U.S. federal government's standard. Although I found myself arguing like a Korean would with my brother, my outsider perspective actually tells me the BGN's classification makes perfect sense. Although it makes a thorny issue even more complex, the U.S. has been calling the islets the Liancourt Rocks since 1977 so as to stay out of the Korea-Japan dispute. Yet it officially recognized the islets as South Korean territory prior to the "undesignated sovereignty" debacle. So with Japan making refreshed claims to Dokdo at the same time the U.S. naming agency delivered a diplomatic slap in the face, it's no wonder Koreans were a little perturbed. Although the BGN name change was based on a decision made some time ago, the untimely release felt to Koreans like a U.S. vote in favor of Japan. Perhaps because this incident came on the heels of very spirited demonstrations against U.S. beef imports and amidst the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement impasse, the Bush administration quickly instructed the BGN to re-designate the Liancourt Rocks as Korean territory on its website.


Arguing back and forth with Japan, even through the highest diplomatic channels, seems to rarely bear substantial results for Korea. Several admonishments of Japan's claims by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have done little to temper the issue. So when Korea's favorite phrase stating that Dokdo is "clearly Korean land historically, geographically, and by international law" (I can't count the number of times I've broadcast those exact words to an international audience) fell on deaf ears in Japan, Korea's strategy turned to convincing the rest of the world that Dokdo is, in fact, Korean territory. Nevermind that most people outside Korea have never even heard of Dokdo or care who owns it. Regardless of what the islets are called on a map, they're barely even visible without a magnifying glass.

"Dokdo Love"

Of course the waters around Dokdo, and the sea life in them, are what's really at stake. Koreans seem unanimous in their belief that sovereignty over Dokdo is theirs, and the t-shirts with awkward claims in English point to the country's hope that the rest of the world can be convinced of the same.

Monday, September 22, 2008

KBS World Radio coming to you via RSS feed!

KBS World Radio will soon begin an RSS feed service. This means you'll be able to download our programming onto your computer to enjoy whenever, wherever you wish.

Our first step is deciding which programs to feature via RSS feed. That's where YOU come in! Please let us know which shows you'd most like to see available in this format. Remember, you can always listen to our programs on-demand on our website, but this new option will allow you to take KBS World with you wherever you go!

Send us an e-mail to or leave a comment here on my blog and give us your input.

Heart attacks for sale, but Mad Cow-safe

America's most internationally familiar food chain is exercising damage control in light of Koreans' apprehension of U.S. beef. As though McDonald's customers were pillars of healthy consumption, the company is assuring everyone that its burgers are made strictly with Australian beef. (Personally, I've never dared to guess from where the "mystery meat" used in McDonald's products comes, regardless of where its sold.)

After months of intense public backlash against the government's decision to reopen the Korean market to U.S. beef, many restaurants have been pushing the non-American beef-ness of their products, but I find myself irritated by these signs posted at an American fast food icon. McDonald's should be using its power to advertise the quality of American products and help repair the tattered image of U.S. beef, rather than playing into unfounded rumors and irrational fears. Perhaps coming from farm country U.S.A., I'm too slow to scrutinize American farm products, but I've certainly never worried about the safety of beef purchased in the States. I have, on the other hand, winced when considering the amount of fat and cholesterol in an order of McDonald's french fries. That's what Koreans oughtta be worried about.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Shopping for hanbok

Koreans and Japanese spend plenty of time pointing out their differences, but when it comes to traditional clothing, or at least what they call traditional clothing, both cultures keep it very simple. The Japanese have the kimono, which literally means "thing to wear". In Korea, the typically bright, flowing traditional attire is called hanbok, or "Korean clothing". Several weeks ahead of Chuseok, Korea's annual harvest festival, big box retailers and department stores started stocking racks and racks of low-priced hanbok. These days, it's mostly kids who wear hanbok for holidays, but newlyweds also wear the attire during the first major holiday after their wedding. I also noticed several elderly folks donning the traditional garb last weekend. I recently accompanied Sophia on a mission to purchase a hanbok for a four year-old American boy. For a variety of options and high quality, we headed to a group of hanbok stores in Yeongdeungpo.

One of the shop owners told us a high quality hanbok for adults averages $700. Most Korean couples wear hanbok for the traditional portion of their wedding ceremony.

I made the mistake of telling Sophia I didn't think an American boy would be too enthusiastic about pink pants, although Korean men are more than comfortable wearing hanbok in bright pastels. She clearly wasn't thrilled about my suggestion of above option due to its more masculine colors.

Sophia at the height of frustration. We eventually agreed on some bright blue pants.

Traditional food among traditional textiles

Monday, September 15, 2008

Happy Chuseok!

One of Korea's biggest two holidays created an eerily quiet, yet pleasant atmosphere around Seoul last weekend. Chuseok (추 석) is Korea's Thanksgiving, a harvest festival celebrated every year on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, or September 14th this year according to the Gregorian calendar. Nearly everyone in the country gets vacation on Chuseok, as well as one day off before and after the holiday. Like American Thanksgiving, Chuseok is a time for food and family, but Korea's holiday includes rituals honoring ancestors. Most Koreans head to their hometowns (wives usually go to their husband's) where they visit the family burial site and make edible offerings to deceased loved ones. Festivities begin early in the morning with a massive feast, followed by ancestral rites and then quality time with family. One Chuseok hostess told me her family spent over $1,000 (1,000,000 Korean 원) on beef, pork, and all the trimmings to feed her family of nine.

Songpyeon. Like candy canes to Christmas, these crescent-shaped rice cakes stuffed with bean or sesame seed paste are a staple Chuseok treat. The security guard at my apartment building surprised me Saturday with this offering.

For a foreigner like me, Chuseok offers a great opportunity to wander the city without the typical hustle and bustle and pushing and shoving. No craning your neck to spot the one open seat on the subway. No armpits in your face on the bus. The Korea Expressway Corporation estimated nearly 400,000 vehicles full of holiday travelers would be returning to Seoul Monday alone, which means the city's population must have slimmed by millions over the weekend. Many businesses were closed Friday through Monday. Most of Korea's ubiquitous 김 밥 천 국 restaurants, typically open around the clock, closed their doors for three days straight. I hate to admit that Mickey D's saved me from starvation on Friday night.

It's amazing how much I crave kimbap when I can't have it! Most Kimbap Cheonguks were closed for three days straight.

I anticipate there will be plenty of exhausted ladies around the office tomorrow. Korean women frequently bemoan the holidays, since the brunt of cooking and cleaning falls upon female shoulders. Women who happen to be married to a family's eldest son have it the worst, since they usually end up hosting the rest of the family. Several media reports leading up to the holiday offered women tips on how to weather the stress of the festivities. The good news this year is that since the holiday fell on Sunday, there were just three days of official holiday recognition. When Chuseok is on a Tuesday or Thursday, it means nothing but cooking and cleaning for many women for five days straight.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Gluttons for punishment?!

I've been invited to extend my contract with KBS World Radio! Apparently I haven't offended anyone too severely during my tenure here, despite my tacky American holiday decorations and a penchant for speaking (and laughing) much too loudly in the office.

Don't worry, I read the English translation before signing!

It's hard to believe it's been almost one whole year since I started working for KBS World Radio. It feels like just yesterday I was signing a very similar document back in Illinois and faxing it off to Seoul, an unfamiliar place with an exciting opportunity. Today, eleven+ months later, Sophia guided me through the contract in person, rather than over an international telephone call.

I thank KBS for extending this opportunity which has been both professionally and personally rewarding. My experience in Korea has been more fulfilling than I ever imagined. I thank all my co-workers for making every Monday through Friday a fun and enlightening experience. And thanks especially to Sophia for your patience and perpetually eager willingness to explain things.

Now it's time to deliver some news!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Welcome back, Haewon!

After nearly a month in the United States (and many indulgences at Bob Evans) Haewon is back Seoulside--and bemoaning a one-kilogram weight gain. It's great to have her back in the co-host chair and I've been intrigued by her stories from the States. It seems her young son was quite taken with American culutre, happy to be freed of homework (yes, Korean schools give homework over summer break!), and awed by a backyard big enough to accommodate a huge trampoline. In Seoul, where most people live in highrise apartments, many relish the idea of having a backyard at all.

As for Haewon, she was overjoyed during a shopping trip when she slid into the larger smaller sizes (make sense?) of American pants; so much so that she eagerly made a purchase even though she didn't care for the style all that much. By the time I return to the States, maybe size four will read size zero. That's an illusion I'll gladly pay for, too!

Thanks to Matt Kelley for sitting in for Haewon last month on Worldwide Friendship. You need not mourn his departure, though. You can still catch his segment, "Discovering Korea", during WWF episodes. Also, tune into "Seoul Calling" every Tuesday and Thursday for the Matt-Abby duo.

So, tune in to Worldwide Friendship this Saturday to catch Haewon and me as we share listener letters from all around the world!