Extra! Korea

March 21, 2009

Korea’s low productivity rate barely improves

Filed under: economics — extrakorea @ 12:38 pm

Koreans work the longest hours from amongst all OECD countries, yet have one of the very lowest productivity rates (which, as you might imagine, has been connected to low job satisfaction and even memory loss). Said rate has not improved much.

Labor productivity in Korea’s manufacturing industry grew 0.3 percent in 2008, the lowest rate in seven years. According to data released by the Ministry of Knowledge Economy and the Korea Productivity Center on Thursday, it was the lowest rate since it dwindled 1.3 percent in 2001. In the fourth quarter of last year, productivity dropped 13.3 percent.

Korea has lower labor productivity than advanced nations, but the wage increase rate is higher than theirs, according to a report released by the Korea Economic Research Institute the same day. The country’s value-added labor productivity per hour is lower than that of the U.S., Japan, Germany, the U.K., France and Italy.

When value-added labor productivity per hour was converted into purchasing power as of the end of 2005, the U.S. topped the list with US$50, followed by Germany ($49.50), France ($44.10), Japan ($41.70), Italy ($39.50), and the U.K. ($38.70). Korea ranked at the bottom with $28.80.

(source)

Wonder Girls sue for intellectual property theft

Filed under: celebrities, intellectual property, music, rapid cultural change — extrakorea @ 11:08 am

The Wonder Girls, one of South Korea’s most popular and successful music groups, plans to fight against plagiarism of its hit, “Nobody,” by groups from Cambodia and other Asian countries.

South Korea’s top female pop group Wondergirls plans to take legal action against several overseas entertainment firms for plagiarizing its hit song “Nobody,” the group’s agent said Friday.

“Several Asian entertainment companies in China, Thailand and Cambodia have been making illegal profits off of ‘Nobody’ by remaking the song without permission and copying the costumes and dance moves. This is going beyond a tolerable level,” Seoul’s JYP Entertainment said in a press release.

(source)
You can see the Wonder Cambodians here (Hat Tip) and you used to be able to see them here, but the footage has been removed.
In a similar way, Chinese companies have made copycat phones of Samsung models (see here, here, here, and here).
This is an example of the shoe being on the other foot. Now that South Korea is, officially, an advanced, developed country, it is increasingly becoming the victim of intellectual property theft by developing nations. However, until recently, it was Korea committing flagrant acts of copyright infringement.
You can find chocolate bars called “Kic Ker,” a blatant copy of the more well-known Kit Kat (see here and here).
Also, there are a few coffee shop chains whose shops and logos look similar to Starbucks (see here and here). Starbucks took Starpreya, the one with the logo most similar to its own, to court. The judge ruled against Starbucks, claiming that the two logos were not similar enough (see here, here, here, and here. (Look at this picture and try to tell me that they don’t look similar. There is also an attempt to explain here.) A Korean newspaper subsequently announced that the nation of Korea had scored a great victory against the foreign barbarians. (However, when one Korean company copied another, they were dealt with appropriately.)
Two sayings come to mind. One is “What goes around comes around.” Let’s see how they feel when other countries steal their ideas and declare victories when their judges rule against them. The other saying is “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Koreans have been very keen, almost obsessed, with becoming a developed country. Let’s see if they enjoy it as much as they imagined.

Edit/Update:

I feel that I should clarify. Aside from sharing the same nationality, the Wonder Girls and Samsung have nothing to do with the people responsible for Starpreya and the Kic Ker chocolate bars. When I said, “Let’s see if they enjoy it …” I was voicing something like a rhetorical question. I didn’t really mean to suggest that I condone having their ideas stolen. However, there has definitely been a mentality of “succeed by any means necessary” here.
I recall a program that aired on the Arirang television channel. Even though it’s supposedly aimed at foreign viewers, most of them can’t stand it due to its laughably ham-fisted propaganda. (For example: Kimchi is healthy, delicious, good for your health, and tastes great. It’s also healthy, prevents SARS, and cures cancer and AIDS.”) This program described the story of the first Korean to produce fiberglass. He went to Japan for a business conference. At the time, he didn’t know, exactly, how to make fiberglass. During a break, he saw a door marked: “Keep out. Authorized personnel only.” He goes in and has a good look at the equipment before the Japanese catch him and scold him. The program lauded him as a hero for committing what basically amounted to industrial espionage.
In Korea, cheating on tests is called “cunning,” and it’s only bad if you are caught, and that’s because you were foolish or careless enough to get caught. If you get away with it, then it proves that you are clever.

March 20, 2009

Director Park Chan-wook (of “Old Boy” fame) releasing new movie “Thirst”

Filed under: movies — extrakorea @ 11:02 pm

If you liked director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Old Boy,” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance“), then you might like his new film, “Thirst.” (You can see a trailer here and a brief description here.) It’s scheduled to be released in South Korea in April.

Edit/Update:

There’s more information in this article, including a look at the original movie poster and its revised, less racy version.

Further Update:

Here is an article about the movie, focusing on the main actress, Kim Ok-bin.

[“Thirst”] will be released in Korea on Apr. 30.

March 19, 2009

Did SBS try to cause friction between Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada?

Filed under: celebrities, sports — extrakorea @ 1:32 pm

This AFP article describes an interview that SBS (a Korean television station) conducted with Kim Yu-na (which should be spelled Yeon-ah, since in Korean her name is 김연아). In it, she complained that other skaters had deliberately sabotaged her practices by obstructing her path. (You can see the interview with English sub-titles here.) Kim mentioned no nations or skaters by name, but:

A voice-over said it was always Japanese skaters that crossed Kim’s path.

Korean netizens have made videos, editing footage and/or adding dramatic music to make the Japanese skaters look like villains (see them here and here). Japanese netizens have struck back, circulating a photo which allegedly reveals Kim’s jealousy of Mao Asada (see it here). We have seen this kind of netizen immaturity before. The Japanese press became involved, with the daily Sports Hochi describing Kim as “‘Japan-bashing’ without warning.” Netizens are idiots, and they’re just doing what idiots do, but SBS’ actions were irresponsible.
In my view, SBS and the netizens didn’t watch figure skating much before Kim became famous, so they’re unaware that accidents happen, which isn’t surprising considering that during warm-ups, there are several skaters on the ice at the same time, traveling at high speed, and practicing jumps that are almost blind. At last year’s Japanese national championships, Miki Ando had her right foot injured after colliding with Fumie Suguri. Watch the first minute of this footage of Midori Ito. Ito isn’t a frail waif. For a female figure skater, she’s built like a little tank, but you can see how long it took for her to recover, and her boot was also slashed by the other skater’s blade.
Kim and Asada have described themselves as “rivals and friends” (see article here and video footage here), and during the interview, Kim described the incidents as “small things” and said that she intends “to rise to the occasion.” Since she’s Korean, if things get really rough out there, she could always use the Iron Lotus.

(Hat Tip to Brian in Jeollanam-do and the Marmot’s Hole)

Edit/Update:

According to this article, Kim Yu-na has been rated as Korea’s top celebrity by Forbes Korea, the Korean version of the American monthly business magazine.

For its March issue cover story, the magazine evaluated Korea’s top celebrities and ranked them for the first time ever. The ranking was based on a celebrity’s professionalism, popularity, income, and influence.

According to the report, Kim placed second for influence, first for professionalism, third for popularity, and 12th for income. She became No. 1 in overall standing.

Surprisingly, Kim Yun-na was unbeatable even by other power celebrities, such as Big Bang, Park Ji-sung, Kim Taehee, and Lee Hyo-ri. Big Bang came in second, Wonder Girls in third and Lee Hyo-ri in fourth.

Kim’s product endorsements have been estimated to be worth between eight and ten billion won.

Kim Yu-na is currently one of the most influential celebrities in advertising, too. This year, she represents about five companies, including Samsung Electronics “Hauzen Air Conditioner,” Hyundai Motors Co., and P&G. She stars in over 10 TV commercials.

Almost every commercial featuring Kim is popular among her fans. But one of the most memorable commercials is the Samsung Electronics ad for the “Hauzen Air Conditioner.” In this commercial, Kim sings and dances dressed like a winter fairy.

If you’re curious about said commercial, you can see it here, and other commercials here, here, and here. She can even sing.

March 15, 2009

Sexual harassment, assaults let to actress Jang Ja-yeon’s suicide

Filed under: celebrities, gender equality, prostitution, suicide — extrakorea @ 11:27 pm

Ever since actress Jang Ja-yeon committed suicide on March 8, there has been talk of a suicide note which detailed her reasons for committing suicide.

A representative at another agency identified as Yu, to whom Jang had reportedly talked about her problems, is believed to have seen the suicide note but has been incommunicado since he wrote on his website, “People in the entertainment world know why she killed herself.”

(source)

Her former manager has come forward and it has come to light that her suicide note described traumatic indignities that she endured before finally taking her own life.

Police have started investigating the authenticity of a note actress Jang Ja-yeon allegedly left before committing suicide on March 8. The note said she was unable to withstand the pressure of entertaining and having sex with program directors and corporate and media executives.

The former manager of the 30-year-old actress made public her alleged handwritten letters. Jang, who recently starred in the hit drama “Boys Over Flowers,” was found dead in an apparent suicide at her home in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province.

According to the Bundang Police Station, Jang’s letter said she was beaten, forced to serve drinks, act as an escort at golf matches and coerced into sex with several program directors, CEOs and media executives.

“Jang’s letter aroused concern toward the unfairness of entertainers’ contracts once again,” a FTC [Fair Trade Commission] official said. “We found several unfair contracts at big agencies last year, but it’s almost impossible to investigate hundreds of small- and medium-sized companies.”

(source)

Unfortunately, this seems to be common in the entertainment industry here.

재키림은 마약을 비롯한 좋지 않은 사건에 휘말리는데, 그녀가 이런 사건에 빠진 이유는 ‘한국에서 실력으로 활동하려 했지만 자신을 성적대상으로만 보면서 높은 사람 자리에 불려나가야 하고, 동료연예인들로부터 왕따당하면서 외로워서 약을 하게 되었다.’고 밝혔다. 재원이라고 떠들었던 뒷편에는 여성 연예인에 대한 여전한 성차별과 고위권의 압력, 동료 연예인의 텃세가 있었던 것이다.

Later, she became disgusted and further disheartened by trying to succeed as a singer in Korea through her own abilities but while facing the virtual prostitution of female entertainers that goes on behind the scenes. Not only was she regularly pressured to entertain and provide sexual services for politicians and business leaders, who saw her merely as yet another trophy girlfriend to be used, but on top of that she was also ostracized by other entertainers too, angered by whom they saw as an uppity overseas Korean whom they intended to put in her place. In the end she became very lonely and depressed and got involved with drugs.

(source of translation)
(original source)

On the sexualization of actors and pop stars:

One time the band I was playing in back in 2002, the year I arrived here, or maybe 2003, and we had a gig at the OLD (yack! mold! but nice mood…) location of Club Bbang. I think it was summer 2003, actually. Anyway, before we played, I went outside into the street as usual with my horn to warm up.

(Saxophones need more warm-up, you know, checking the reed and getting the embouchre tight and so on.)

(Quit laughing about my nice tight embouchre, you dirty-minded slobs!)

Anyway, this guy was standing around, ordering people about as a film shoot for some crappy TV drama or other was being conducted — apparently some famous show from 2002, but my Korean was so bad at that stage that I missed it, so I guess it was famous. Anyway, I walked off around a corner and walked off to warm up, and came back a while later.

When I returned, the rest of the band was outside having a smoke and beer, waiting for our gig to start. Three guys in the band were foreigners, but I was the only obvious (non-Asian) one. So when I got back, I joined the crowd to watch the film shoot, and the guy running the show noticed me standing there with my horn.

When the actress flubbed something, and they had to re-shoot, meaning the car pursuing her had to drive off. This guy who was running the show turned around and started chatting with me in English. “Pretty actress, isn’t she?” A few minutes later, he was bragging about the sexual favors he’d gotten from the lead main actress in the show, and all the women in the show in fact, and how his wife had no idea. (Yeah, sure!)

My somewhat unimpressed reaction was, “Is that so?” He was so brazen about it, and he seemed just sleazy enough to have maybe done so, and quite proud to have gotten a job with such good perks. I was surprised, though, and took his bragging for bullshit. My bandmates suddenly started speaking English, and he joked with them about it, too. It was pretty stomach-turning, as well as surprising — he seemed to take for granted that his whole crew had no idea what he was saying. Or didn’t care, probably.

I asked around after that, and everyone (Korean) I knew said, “Yeah, that’s showbiz here. Poor girls. But they get easy money, so… yeah, it’s like a 다방 girl…” Maybe it’s just such common knowledge (or so commonly assumed) nobody publicizes it?

(source)

Costly Yet Worthless University Degrees

Filed under: education — extrakorea @ 6:30 am

When I saw this cartoon, I wondered how much of a financial burden university students have to deal with. Now I know, courtesy of this article:

“Private universities annually charging up to $6,800 and government’s lukewarm measures are pushing students to kill themselves,” they said in a joint statement.

Although the government offers loans with low-interest rates to 720,000 students, it is far from helping students suffering from the worsening economy, it said. “The government should allot more of its budget to help students pay tuition costs.”

They also visited Yonsei University and held a media conference, demanding the school raise measures against high interest rates on installment payments of tuition with credit cards, whereby students are required to pay nearly 20 percent interest.

I think it’s unfortunate that Korean university degrees are this costly and yet, in my opinion, worthless. The Joongang Ilbo boasted about how almost all Korean university students graduate, but as someone who teaches at a university, I can tell you why. Students can only fail through excessive absences. Even if they sleep in class, do no homework, and bomb on all of their exams, they will still pass. And even if they fail, they can try again, and their old mark is erased as if it had never existed. If you don’t believe me, then look at this article:

Korea ranked high among world countries in higher education achievement but near the bottom in quality.

In the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2008, published by the International Institute of Management Development in Switzerland, Korea is ranked a poor 53rd among 55 nations in terms of university education meeting the needs of a competitive economy, one of the indices that indicate quality levels.

If you are still skeptical, then look at the world university rankings. Seoul National University, Korea’s most prestigious and often referred to as “the Harvard of Korea,” ranks only 50th, 63rd, 182nd, or 152nd-200th, depending upon which ranking system you choose. There’s a lot of diversity, but no matter what, Korea’s top universities never make it near the top, even though Korea is an advanced, industrialized country with an economy that is about the 12th largest in the world. Unfortunately, like so much here, the primary importance is placed upon appearance, not substance.

Edit/Update:

Here is another article about how the rise in tuition is greatly outpacing inflation.

There’s an old saying in Korea that parents have to sell a cow to put their sons or daughters through college.

Well, that may have been possible 30 years ago, but today it doesn’t even come close, according to a study on national university tuition costs and the price of cows between 1978 and 2008 by the Rural Development Administration.

According to the report, a 600-kilogram (1,300-pound) hanwoo bull sold in 1978 for 588,000 won ($438).

Back then a year’s worth of tuition at a national university cost 113,500 won. That means selling one cow could in fact pay for four years of schooling.

Today college tuition has shot up, and in 2008 the same universities on average cost 8.19 million won per year.

A cow of the same weight now sells for 3.89 million won, so it would take eight to nine cows to get a student through a four-year course.

March 14, 2009

“Minerva” Denied Bail

Filed under: censorship, politics — extrakorea @ 8:33 am

The blogger known as “Minerva” has been denied bail. The Korea Times writes:

A Court has refused to grant bail to arrested Internet commentator Park Dae-sung, better known as “Minerva,” citing the possibility that he could flee.

And so what if he did? What would he do? Write another blog entry? Oh no! We’re not talking about a rapist or a bank robber. Decisions like this are going to alienate what supporters the Lee Myung-bak administration has left.

Celebrities Return to Schools as Professors

Filed under: education, rapid cultural change — extrakorea @ 7:34 am

According to the Korea Times, young singers and other kinds of entertainers are becoming college professors.

Many local stars are now shifting to schools, not as students, but as professors. It’s actually a win-win strategy for everyone.

It’s only a win-win situation if the professors have something to teach, and are effective at helping their students.

Park Ji-hun from the boy group V.O.S. will give lectures at Woosong Information College, while singer Ock Ju-hyun has been appointed to teach at Dong Seoul College. Actress Lee In-hye became the youngest star to become a professor at the age of 28, while comedian Nam Hee-seok has been appointed as a full-time professor at the Taekyeong College in the Broadcasting and Masters of Ceremony department. Singers Mina and Jang Hye-jin will also stand in front of fans and students and pass on their experience and know-how.

Singer Park will teach as a part-time professor at his alma mater in the department of Practical Music this year.

It sounds like they’re going to be teaching at the Korean equivalent of community colleges, rather than at universities. I wonder what the difference between “music” and “Practical Music” is.

Musical fans and students will have the chance to listen to former girl group member Fin.K.L. Ock passing on her experience, as she will give lectures for the next two years starting Monday.

“She will be teaching two classes as a part-time instructor _ musicals and vocal training. She hesitated at first due to her personal schedules, but after some convincing, she decided to become a professor for the next two years,” Im Hong-jae from the college public relations office told The Korea Times.

She was the only good singer in Fin.K.L. Maybe she should have given Lee Hyori and her other band-mates vocal training.

Actress Lee also made headlines recently as she became the youngest celebrity professor at her alma mater, Korea University, in the department of Broadcasting and Entertainment.

Korea University is the third-highest ranked university in Korea (behind Seoul National and Yonsei). I wonder what qualifies this young actress to teach about Broadcasting and Entertainment?

“It’s not like we only want to promote our school. It’s more about bringing the best faculty to our students and helping them feel proud of their school,” [Im Hong-jae] added.

For the sake of the students, I hope so.

Are Korean schoolgirls following their Japanese counterparts?

Filed under: education, gender equality, prostitution, rapid cultural change — extrakorea @ 6:36 am

This blog post, by Brian in Jeollanam-do, and this blog post, by Korea Beat, describe how some Korean schoolgirls are hiking up their skirts up when they are not in school, like their counterparts in Japan (see a photo gallery here, courtesy of Lao-ocean Girl). This has been happening for a while, as can be seen in this blog post, by the Metropolitician, dated October 1, 2008.

This would not be the first time that Korean schoolgirls have imported unfortunate sexual notions from Japan. In Korea, there is a something called “wonjo kyoje (원조교제).” It’s described here, here

In Korea, a place where scantily-clad women are used to peddle toothpaste and toilet paper, a quarter of high school girls in one province have sold their bodies for spending money (as reported in a UNESCO-published paper) in the practice known as wonjokyojae (원조교제) …

and here:

This mentality is what leads to “education fever” that convinces healthy 18 year-olds to take flying leaps off buildings if they fail an exam, or the statistic that 1 in 4 high school girls has exchanged sex for money or favors in some form (in one study done by a Korean researcher for a paper on sex in cyberspace). If it seems high, let me tell you that after having worked in Korean public, private, and especially alternative schools – this number seems to reflect reality, believe it or not. There’s even a name for the concept of underage female girls having sex for “compensation” – wonjo kyoje (원조교제) – which may give you a sense of how everyday such acts are. I’m not saying everyone’s doing it – I’m just saying that it’s not unusual.

Wonjo kyoje played a prominent role in the movie “Samaria.”

In Japan, there is something called “enjo kosai ((援助交際 / 援交).” Its similarity to wonjo kyoje, in name and in practice, is not coincidental. It is the predecessor of wonjo kyoje.

South Korea has a kind of love/hate relationship to Japan. It could be better described as resentment/admiration. There are still wounds from past wrongs that have not completely healed, but also a looking towards Japan, as the first Asian country to industrialize. From time to time, trends originating in Japan find their way here, and some, like these, may have a dysfunctional effect upon a society that is already straining from trying to marry old traditions with a culture of new technologies.

Edit/Update:

I highly recommend this post by Gusts of Popular Feeling, one of the best blogs on Korea out there.

Further Update:

A group of underage girls have been running in a scam in which they would lure a john (who was aware that the girl was underage) to a hotel, then blackmail him for money. They did it 21 times, for a total of 3.4 million won.
(Hat Tip to the Marmot’s Hole)

And there’s more information to be read at the often-excellent Gusts of Popular Feeling (posts one, two, and three)

March 13, 2009

Ondol: Korea’s traditional home-heating system

Filed under: culture — extrakorea @ 2:58 pm

To find out about ondol, the home heating system that’s commonly used in Korea, you can read this article from the Korea Times.

The traditional Korean fireplace, however, is “invisible” because it is an under-the-floor structure, hidden from the surface. Traditionally, Koreans used this underfloor-heating device, called “ondol,” to get through the long and cold winter.

The history of ondol goes back to the Neolithic Age, according to Kim June-bong, a professor of architecture at the Beijing University of Technology.

In the Goguryeo period (37 BC_ 668), an “L”-shaped ondol was common that provided partial heating to the room floor. Then, it evolved into a full-room ondol (tong ondol) in the Goryeo period (918 – 1392). By the end of Goryeo, the ondol structure spread to the entire Korean peninsula.

Meanwhile, ondol has been undergoing its own metamorphosis to fit the new demands of time. Ondol was originally fired by wood, but modern homes and apartments are built with heating pipes embedded in the floors. Heated water circulating through the pipes, warmed by a gas or an oiler, has replaced heated air.

Professor Kim claims not to be nationalistic and yet:

And the first step in that direction [promoting ondol internationally] is for the government to preserve and promote the ondol culture, while it should also engage in an effort to correct some misinformation about ondol ― for example, as something related to the Roman hypocaust, which is an ancient system of central heating.

While ondol and the Roman’s hypocaust are not related, in the sense that they were invented independently, it is misleading to claim that they are completely different.

And here is an article about the oldest ondol system discovered so far:

What are believed to be the world’s oldest underfloor stone-lined-channel heating systems have been discovered in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in the U.S. The heating systems are remarkably similar to ondol, the traditional Korean indoor heating system.

Richard Knecht, from the University of Alaska, and Song Ki-ho, of the department of Korean history at Seoul National University, reached some interesting conclusions:

As the ondol of North Okjeo and Amaknak are more than 5,000 kilometers apart, Knecht and Song agree that the two systems seem to have been developed independently.

This theory is backed up by the fact ondol have not been found in areas between the two locations, such as Ostrov, Sakhalin or the Kamchatka Peninsula, and because the Amanak ondol are significantly older than those of the Russian Maritime Province.

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