Nostalgia for a Despot: an Armchair Perspective of Korea’s Present


The big talking point in the land of the morning calm is undoubtedly the election of the conservative party candidate Park Geun Hye to the presidency. Park’s father is man by the name of Park Chung Hee, whose name is both revered and reviled in Korea. Park Geun Hye is a woman, but more in the vein of Margaret Thatcher, where it could be argued gender is incidental.

Park’s election has sparked plenty of talk due to her relationship with her father who ruled this nation with a very controversial iron fist for the best part of two decades in the 1960s and 1970s. While I didn’t follow the election race in too much depth, I know that Park’s victory ticked all the boxes in terms of surprise, disappointment, doom, and any other negative or positive political emotion you can think up.

Now, I rarely talk politics here as it’s not in my writ really (unless it’s Irish politics but I save that for places like twitter and pub, which is the best place for it – I wouldn’t want to go and develop a bad reputation or anything like that now would I?). In terms of international politics, as in the politics of countries I’m not from, I do my best to merely observe, as becoming too involved or concerned does little other than frustrate me, and whoever decides to troll my comment thread. There’s more to this than that though.

Four years ago when Barrack Obama was running for president I made a determined effort to step back and ignore the entire debate. I knew he presented some viable opportunities for change but at the same time he was running for the office of American president, so despite all claims of wonder he was, deep down, aspiring to be a crook and a war criminal. Now I won’t deny that I did get excited by this year’s election as, well, the whole thing was so entertaining. The most disappointing thing about the whole process was that it was real life.

That’s just how I deal with politics, and I treated the Korean election with a similar amount of interest. You might wonder why this would be the case considering I have a vested interest in the outcome, and I do – I have a job, family, and lifestyle here in Korea, as well as paying all of my taxes here – but what good would it have done? Other than me being incredibly disappointed or annoyed (about another thing) it would serve little function. Korea would continue and I would have to seek to continue on within it without a say in how this continuance happened.

Now, for a better analysis of the result of the election, I’m going to direct you to Bobster’s House (Bobsters House: The Day After the Last Day of the World), which is where I took the title for this post from, as he has a more detailed, passionate, and constructive criticism of the situation on his blog. What I am going to do now is continue to observe as best I can.

The thing about elections is, and this is something not mentioned enough in this kind of discourse, is that the result of an election, be it a landslide or decided by a few loose votes, is always a reflection of the mind of society in which we have chosen to live. Love it or hate it, this is always the case.

In the case of Park Geun Hye’s election, it’s a story of the dictator’s daughter who actively participated in the administration who has emerged as the president of the country, now a respected democracy and global player in international affairs and economics, among other complaints. This country is now a starkly different one from the one her father took charge of and it now has the laws and institutions to protect itself from another despotic regime taking over – unless the North invades of course. But does that make a difference? Perhaps. No one actually knows what is going to happen. Alas.

Yes there are going to be some serious outcomes from the new president. I believe freedom of speech and freedom of information will continue to be threatened.  I believe equality will continue to remain something to be aspired to in the future (putting it mildly). I believe the wealth gap will continue to widen. I believe that few solutions to Korea’s economic situation worth remembering will be instituted.

Society in Korea has decided that it wants this lady to rule the country, and there is little more that we can complain about. Korean society is a lot more different and diverse than the bright lights of Gangnam and this election has done well to remind us of this significant reality. I travel to the countryside quite a lot, especially into Gangwon-do and around the outskirts of Cheonan and Yongin, and there is no doubting that eclectic neon-clad districts of Seoul such as Gangnam and Hongdae are more the exception than the rule.

As The Bobster pointed out, there are now more fifty year-olds in Korea than forty year-olds; that’s more people recalling the glory of full employment and rapid economic development than those who recall the aftermath, which was at the height of Park Chung Hee’s despotism. Even members of Herself’s own family who voted for Park in the recent election used the fact that because of her father she would do a good job.

It does not surprise me so much that Park was elected as president. Korea is a conservative country, and she is from the conservative Saenuri party. In fact, it strikes me that the opposition parties have done quite well considering how conservative Korea is, both politically, but also socially and culturally.

What doesn’t seem to be being mentioned loudly enough is that Korea is such a different country from what it was. It is a different time with different demands, of which there re too many to discuss here. I don’t think enough people know this. Korea doesn’t need full employment and rapid economic development as its highest priority any longer. It needs stability and support for its population, which is overpriced, aging, and suffering increasingly from its overly competitive dynamic. The miracle on the Han River is no longer as miraculous. The Han River’s economic development is now routine to the point it has become stagnant.

Back when Korea was developing, becoming an export economy was the best option, as there were plenty of people desperate for work, food, money, and everything else society required in the latter half of the twentieth century. Now is it any different? I would say no, it is not. Korea is still an export economy and its population revolves around the survival of its key players, namely Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and possibly some of the smaller, less famous Chaebol.

If you come down to Suwon where I live you can see this. Samsung’s Digital City is located in the centre of the city, which is an old and aging one without much industry around it. Surrounding Digital city spread out across both Yongin and Hwaseong counties are at least six more large Samsung manufacturing plants, all top of the line and all make Foxconn’s Chinese production facilities look primitive. This is the core of Samsung Electronics’ manufacturing empire in Korea.

Overall Samsung employs around 100,000 people in Korea (about half its global workforce). However, the local economy’s reliance on this company is staggering. From my window I can see large construction projects being carried out in Digital City. In the Dongtan plant, there is also large construction work underway. Surrounding all these factories are companies which supply and support Samsung’s manufacturing processes. Let’s not forget the newly developed towns, such as Yeongtong where I live, new expressways, subways and buses to connect to Seoul, schools, shopping and dining facilities, and more. This kind of development has nothing to do with Korea’s economic prominence; it has everything to do with the global demand for Samsung products.

As usual, this export orientated development is no different from the 1960s when Korea fulfilled a similar role to the one now carried out by China – a manufacturer of cheap but high quality goods, but ultimately dependent on the international economy for its survival. Is Korea not any better now as it churns out televisions and mobile phones at a high rate to satiate an always hungry global consumer?

The thing is, when Lee Myoung Bak became president, it was argued that he was the right man for the job and he could reinvigorate Korea’s stumbling economy (let’s not forget that this was 2008 – a time when major European economies and the US were themselves beginning to falter). The same party’s candidate can hardly have much more revolutionary steps up her sleeve for seeing about an economic rebirth, especially for a country that is tied to the ups and downs of its buyers across the world.

What Korea needs now is a change, and a big one, across the board. The economy is just one area which needs work, but it is certainly an obvious and easy one to provoke. Korea needs to learn to innovate and it needs to become attractive to the international environment – which isn’t easy when you consider the compeititon in Asia alone is places like Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and of course Singapore.

Korea has a fantastic population of hardworking and concerned citizens who only want the best for their country. But are these people being misled? Possibly. It needs to re-educate and approach the world from a new angle. It needs to change its institutions and it needs to respect them. It has to look at itself and rely on itself more.

Changes need to be made to turn away from this old-fashioned overly dependent means of running the country to one which encourages the old to develop into the new, and one which sees its Korean identity as pivotal in its interaction with others. This is not the case now. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, and this is an iceberg that will take longer than five years to melt.

P.S. I could be very wrong about all of this.

*UPDATE* Have a read of Roboseyo’s take on the election, including a more in depth and less one sided (and despondent) perspective on the role of Park Chung hee’s role in Korea’s past and present. 

Demons, Distractions, and Demands


I am my own worst enemy, and when it comes to giving advice I don’t think I stand a chance when put in front of the judges. Why would anyone care to listen to anyone who cannot claim to have achieved as much as they’d like to? I’ve an answer, and it is because I know what I’m doing wrong and I know that if you’re looking for a way to get over something perhaps, and I really mean perhaps, what I’m about to say might help.

I was born as a procrastinator. I’m lazy. I’m easily distracted. I tend to blinker myself from the reality of life’s requirements. Much of this doesn’t really effect me until that awful last minute arrives and I suddenly have to get everything done in a fluster. I don’t know if I was born like this. I don’t think I’ve inherited this gene from my parents. I do wish that I could be just a little bit committed to one of the many causes I assign myself to.

Take today for example. Up until about fifteen minutes ago, my plan for the day was going perfectly. I had woken up, had a light breakfast, read a little, then walked to the shops and bought some mushrooms and bread, then I cooked lunch for myself and Herself. I have since returned to the bedroom where I’m sitting under the fan writing a blog post, when I had initially set out to do more reading. I think I read about five hundred words (incidentally it was a book review for a book about helping writers to focus on their writing), and then I thought it would be a great idea to write a blog post. About what? Being distracted. I am not sure whether you could say I was inspired.

To add insult to injury, I’ve been out to the kitchen twice to boil the kettle for coffee and to find a particular blue pen, checked my email, twitter, instagram, the weather, and started reading an article about Ireland’s hopes for a second gold medal in the boxing at the Olympics.

It’s a curse, and I know it’s not something I suffer from alone. Fortunately, my income does not rely on me to be an overly productive writer, but one day I would like it to be so. I worry though that because of my reliance on being incessantly distracted, no one will give me a job because I’ll never get any work done, or I’ll be driven mad by stress because it took me until the last minute (again) to get something handed in on time.

Allow me to bore you for a moment with the things I’ve seriously (kind of) committed myself to (psychologically at least) over the past year or so, but which have made little to no progress.

– A distance feature writing journalism course (only one of ten assignments done)
– An application to do a Phd in contemporary poetry.
– A first collection of poems (many started, many submitted to magazines, many unfinished, and many rejected).
– A chap book of poems on things which people do all the time but which they never talk about.
– A collection of essays and short comments based around the posts in this blog and sold as an ebook.
– A memoir of my life in Korea to date.
– Various articles for magazines in Korea and Ireland, but most of which have no research carried out.
– Even more literary magazines with with submission deadlines and guidelines duly noted, but that’s about all the work I’ve done on them.

There could be more…

Oh yes, don’t forget all the magazines, novels, books, and links to articles online which I have stockpiled but never seem to get around to reading.

Did I mention I also have to work and that Herself is six months pregnant?

So, you see, by expecting myself to unrealistically see these goals through I think I’m causing myself undue stress. I know from my co-workers that none of them are stressed about that much, but by building up my own demands I have created this little red demon who sits on my shoulder and whispers into my ear, “why aren’t you doing this?”, constantly. Nagging, like my mother who used to ask me to paint the fences in the summer, and still I kind of metaphorically roll over in the bed and check whatever poxy internet site my finger is nearest to again.

The thing is, it is not as if all this comes down on top of me unexpectedly. What bothers me the most about this is that these are all things that I want to do. If you look at the the to-do list above, there is not one thing which I have been made to do. I have asked for all of this, and I want to do it all too. Perhaps it’s just a case of my eyes being bigger than my belly.

Right now you’re probably right in thinking that I’m an idiot, and I could have at least warned you before you started reading that this post would be mostly me complaining about my inability to start, let alone finish, things. I apologise for that, but if I had warned you I would never have kept your attention, and that would have meant that this piece of writing would have been a complete waste of my time and your time. However, allow me to remedy that.

The solution to all of this is very simple. It has to do with attitude, of course, and trust. This can be applied across the board to anything. While I consider myself a writer, I don’t doubt that this post can be applied to all areas of life, work, family, and personal development.

Firstly, you have to look at yourself, whatever it is you are doing, and know what it is that is stopping you from doing it. In my case, what is stopping me from getting things done is my laziness. If it’s something else, then what can you do to change it? Can you afford to take the steps to make a difference to allow you to do what it is you want to do, and if you can, then is there any other reason that would stop you from doing it?

I won’t suggest that you should stop doing everything you have been doing and start trying to achieve what it is you have always wanted. The world does not work like that, and no person, regardless of their ability, can be expected to start something new and instantly be a success. Yes, there are success stories of people who have done things like this, but this is why we call them stories and not realities. You need to work hard to realise your goals step by step. Slowly and assuredly is the best way to realise what it is you have always wanted to do. But remember, you have to start.

More importantly, trust has more significance than attitude. Trust is something which has varying levels of applicability and needs to be applied differently to different situations, and of course people. Trust should always be applied relatively to whatever it is you are trusting. That being said, you need to trust yourself that you can do whatever it is you are doing, to the point that you know the limits of your own ability. Set yourself small goals and gradually as you overcome each one, the next one will appear less of an obstacle, because you can gradually trust yourself to reach them.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. About two years ago I set myself the writing goals of getting a poem published and also getting some magazine work published. I overcame both of these goals after a fair amount of effort, but I did it. With the magazine writing, I have moved on to larger and more ambitious projects but which I believe to be realisable because I can trust myself to work within my limits. With my poetry, for some reason I decided to rest and think about my options. I didn’t write much or submit much for quite a while, and now I’m right back to where I started again, trying to find somewhere that will accept some of my poetry submissions. I wouldn’t be far from the truth if I told you I had zero confidence in my work at the moment, but am I going to let that stop me?

Trust also applies to the system you work with. To trust something, much like people, you have to know it and how it works. Whatever it is you do, learn what it is you are dealing with and understand it so that when you recognise openings or situations that you might be able to take advantage of, you will be prepared to do so.

For example, think of the amount of times you’ve gone hunting for a job only to turn up with nothing because you didn’t really understand what it was you were letting yourself into, leaving you all washed up with negative results. Even if something is apparently corrupt, if you know how it works then you can trust it to operate in a particular way so that there are no major surprises whenever you approach it to deal with whatever it is you’re trying to do.

Attitude and trust are, in my mind, two of the most important aspects of helping you to realise beyond your current situation. Both of these boil down to knowing about yourself and your broader situation. The more you know about yourself, the more you can get on with achieving your goals and crossing off items on your ever expanding to-do list.

What Motivates You To Write?


It’s probably a little cliché to write about what makes me want to be a writer. If you ever happen upon any websites that promote writing and offer advice on becoming a writer, you’ll probably not struggle to find a page of quotations about why such-and-such a writer writes, as well as a long list of links or articles about why people write, and all of them essentially say the same thing. They write because writing is just something they have to do. I would share the same sentiments.

Not everyone is a writer, but everyone can write, and some people can write better than others, which is a no-brainer. Becoming a successful writer definitely doesn’t need as much effort as becoming a quality writer, an acclaim which requires the 10,000 hour (or more) treatment. To spend 10,000 hours focusing on anything requires a lot of determination, although I won’t deny that some people just end up having to do it. But when you are making this effort on a craft you love, then I think the effort counts for something different.

The Beatles may have played for 10,000 hours, or at least close to it, when they were in Hamburg.

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Letter from Korea, January 2011


Jumunjin, South Korea

31/1/2011

Dear Ireland

It is the Monday before Korean New Year, and a month after normal New Year. It’s time for a new year’s resolution. I thought about and talked to some people about New Year’s resolutions, and I came to the consensus that there’s not much point in making it public and committing to a promise that you will probably break – Brian Cowen is a perfect example of this.

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