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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sometimes the Stars Align

Sunset, Yeungnam University,
Fall, 2014
Sometimes you dig your feet in at the plate. You sway your body just that little bit, to and fro', so that you can feel the steadiness in your stance. You try a few swings before the pitch is thrown. You look around the field searching for an empty space where, if everything goes just right, you might be able to place the ball. The ball comes, you swing and somehow, you hit it on the sweet spot. It streams on an arc right to the location you had imagined just a second before.

Sometimes on a sunny day, just off the coast, you are sailing along without a care in the world. The only sounds are the wind filling the sails and the drunken gulls screaming aloft. You have, as mariners say, fair winds and following seas. Everything is moving you just right.

Sometimes you are in a place in time, between the bookends of your life. There amongst the tales and stories that are your own unique experience, all the people and places intersect. Traffic stops.

Sometimes the stars align as they did at our recent faculty party this December 2014. The Fall semester came to a glorious close with colleagues      and friends, as these photos attest.

Gyeungsan, South Korea.
Photos thanks to Lindsay Nash, Nash Photos.

Sometimes all the people and places intersect
With John Healy, Dec. 2014

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Center of The Universe

The university students here always asked me the same few questions. "Professor, where are you from?" "Professor, where did you graduate from university?" "Professor, what was your major?"

At the time, I wasn't exactly sure what accounted for the remarkable consistency in the questioning. As it ends up, much of what happens in Korea is remarkably uniform. The voice of the Korean teacher meanders down through generations of students. At the end of that river, spills out those repetitive questions, rounded stones shaped by endless classroom drills.

"Well, my hometown is New York," I would say. I always drew the distinction between New York State and New York City, hoping to throw in the small learning opportunity about the difference between a state and a city. "And, I graduated from Boston University." That diploma, was newly minted, at the time. I had only graduated the previous May. "My major, well, I majored in American history."

That particular response would sometimes elicit curious reactions.

"Professor, how could American history be a major? It's only 200 years old. Korean history," it was pointed out, "is 5000 years old. That would be a major."

The mind of a freshly minted Peace Corps volunteer can handle only so much dissonance. I was already dealing with drastic differences in food, living and sleeping arrangements and language between Korea and the U.S. But even this contradiction, was hard to ignore. It was around this time that I realized my country was not the center of the universe, but rather, just another country in a world of nations. At that time, our chapter in Vietnam was just drawing to a close. And so, our more recent story of military excursions with questionable victories was just being written.

Today it seems much clearer. Americans lash out as if we know on some subconscious level we are no longer the center of the universe. Around the world our signature is drawn by the deadly hand of drones and F-16's. At home, we witness and somehow tolerate, almost weekly mass killings wherever people congregate. Our country is run by politicians whose primary reasons for being are to sustain their own power while serving up laws and policies that fill the insatiable appetite of big business. The needs of their constituents are a distant third--if given any serious thought at all.

In his "The Geography of Thought," Richard E. Nisbett, notes, "that the past five hundred years of Western military, political, and economic dominance have made the West intellectually and morally arrogant." He points out that perhaps it's time for us "to consider the possibility that another valid approach to thinking about the world exists and that it can serve as a mirror with which to examine and critique their own beliefs and habits of mind."

In the so-called "3 most honest minutes in television history," actor Jeff Daniels, star of the HBO series "The Newsroom," offers a somber and thought-provoking critique of the United States in its often self-anointed role as "The Greatest Country in the World."

Forty years ago my young Korean students offered me a different frame of reference on the world. Reflection, soul-searching and a change in priorities should be a national agenda for the U.S. Our politicians may have to get out of the way if this process is to be successful. Otherwise, and quite likely, American history will indeed be "a minor" in the scheme of things.

Monday, October 6, 2014

North Korea Unplugged: Cries & Whispers (3rd in a series)

Not much longer ago than a wink of an eye in historical terms, as recently as 1974 to be exact, North Korea's economy was every bit the measure of South Korea's. Since then, the economy of this conundrum of a country has bit the dust. Today, the DPRK per capita income hovers at only $1800 a year. At the same time, South Korea's has risen to about $27,000. Those sounds drifting southerly from across the DMZ? They are the faint cries and whispers of North Korea's citizens, shackled to the walls of their failed system. It is hard to discern the boundary between their pain and the cacophony of incessant propaganda that seeps into their lives 24 hours a day. Here are a few of the cries and whispers I heard while visiting there recently.

The Red Hanbok at the Juche Tower

A North Korean woman wearing her red and white hanbok gave us a tour of the Juche Tower. The Juche Idea, a set of principles written by Kim Il Sung during the 1960's and 70's, has become literally a bible shaping everyday behavior and policy for North Koreans.  Reading them, I was singularly unimpressed. That notwithstanding, this woman seemed happy and proud of her job and her country. When the tour up and around the tower was finished, she escorted the group to our tour bus. As she walked alone back to her post at the tower, I followed her from behind and took this picture. I was fascinated by the contrast between the grey and red. The slivers of red reminded me of the more typical colorlessness of North Korea, and were a metaphor for dreams and hopes, in an otherwise dreary landscape.

Our Tour Guides
Ms. Kim, left, (not her actual name) was my small group's tour guide during the trip. She called me "Poppa," largely because I asked her not to call me "grandfather," as someone my age is typically referred to in Korea, North or South. Back in Beijing, at a pre-tour orientation, we were asked by our tour company leaders at Koryo, not to contradict or challenge our tour guides so as not to embarrass them, or put them at risk. But one evening late in our tour, while we were alone, she asked me why my wife wasn't on the tour with me. I hesitated, then took a risk. "She doesn't believe in Kim Il-sung's principles," I said. She looked back at me in total disbelief. "How could your wife disagree with you?", she asked.

Mr. Lee, soldier at the DMZ
Mr. Lee (not his real name) was our host for part of the morning at the DMZ. His was very friendly and personable. On the roof of one of the buildings there, he patiently posed for photos with nearly every person on our tour. Not wanting to bother him, I resisted asking. He noticed me (perhaps it was the chartreuse green shirt) and asked if he could take a photo with me. When I told him I was an American professor teaching in South Korea, he was very intrigued and curious. We shared genuinely good feelings for each other. Later, he sat next to me on our tour bus. I was sad to see him go.

Utility Poles Wear Sleeves
As our bus meandered in the countryside between cities, I noticed what looked like black sleeves near the top of some utility poles. I asked one of our minders, who happened to be sitting across the aisle from me, about them. His too-quick response, that he had no idea what they were, left me skeptical. I told myself to be on the lookout for more cues. Later, while reading Nothing to Envy and Dear Leaderthe explanation for the sleeves became apparent. During the severe famines of the 1990's many starving North Koreans resorted to climbing the poles and cutting the lines to abscond with the copper wiring to sell on the black market in exchange for food. The black sleeves, with their protruding nails, still glare menacingly over the landscape.

Photo of Kids' Backpacks
I was walking alone, somewhat apart from our tour group, when I saw this pile of children's backpacks on the ground. They looked colorful and modern, many with Disney logos. In fact, I thought they looked exactly like a pile of elementary school backpacks you'd see here in South Korea. This new trend of modern and colorful clothing and accessories has recently caught the attention of many curious observers in South Korea. For them, it apparently suggests cracks in the walls that enclose North Korean society from the rest of the world.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

North Korea Unplugged: Kim Il-sung Slept Here, 2nd in a series

Though there are many stops on the North Korean tour, one thing is remarkably consistent. At each venue, whether it's a factory, historic place, or university, when the local tourist guide gets passed the baton to speak to the group, she always focuses on one theme: When did Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or more recently, Kim Jung-un, visit the place?, What words of wisdom did he impart?, and what artifacts from his visit remain on display in perpetuity, for all to see and admire?

On the Spot Guidance
The leaders are exceedingly brilliant. Their expertise is broad and deep. Their wisdom is admired far and wide. During Kim Il-sung's visit to the Wonsan Agricultural University, for example, he told school officials that they should begin to grow bananas in their university greenhouse. Done! We are directed to the exact spot where the Eternal Leader stood when he made that pronouncement. We are shown a black and white photo of the Eternal Leader surrounded by admiring students. In a glass case we observe a chair upon which he sat while visiting the university.

In her book, Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick noted "Father and son were experts in absolutely everything, be it geology or farming." One day Kim Jung-il "decreed that the country should switch from rice to potatoes for its staple food; the next he would decide that raising ostriches was the cure for North Korea's food shortage. The country lurched from one harebrained scheme to another." Demick refers to this dynamic as "on the spot guidance."

At all the stops on our tour, this is what our North Korean hosts always assumed we most wanted to hear about. And this "dance" continued from venue to venue. Kim Il-sung's "wisdom" was invariably offered as the talking centerpiece. Salient questions were often brushed aside. When I asked one of our guides about the black "sleeves" I noticed near the tops of telephone poles in the countryside, he said he didn't know what they were. Later, doing my own research, I learned the sleeves, with exposed nails, were placed there during the famines of the 90's. It seems starving North Koreans would climb the poles and steal the copper wiring to sell on the black market for food. Was the "Kim Il-sung slept here routine" genuine national pride, or had it become an obligatory story line--a safe way to get through another day in a failed state?

Visiting Wonsan Agricultural University

Photo showing the Eternal Leader, Kim Il-sung, meeting with admiring
university students decades ago. During the visit, he instructed
school officials to grow bananas in the university greenhouse
Red triangle marks the exact spot where Kim Il-sung stood
when he gave his "on the spot guidance" to the university
University students in uniforms head to class
 as tour members pass in opposite direction

Students mingle in front of mural depicting North Korean leaders
standing in fields of grain

My guide couldn't explain the black "sleeves" I noticed on
telephone poles in the countryside. Later I learned they were
placed there to prevent the theft of copper wiring
during the famines of the 1990's.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

North Korea Unplugged: Wonsan #1 In A Series of Unpublished Photos and Commentary on North Korea

As a child I couldn't get my hands on enough National Geographic Magazines to quench my insatiable appetite for information about foreign places. For me, the stories were really about the photos and their pithy captions. My mind and eyes were moving too fast to slow down to read the articles.

It's in that spirit, that I share photos from my recent trip to North Korea. I start with the port city of Wonsan. Wonsan, a major city of 330,000, lies on the East Sea, several hours by bus, due east of the capital, Pyongyang.

A trip to North Korea is, in some ways, very predictable. Yet, there were many surprises. For me, I was surprised that, with few exceptions (including soldiers and military installations), we were free to take almost all the photos we wanted. Enjoy this photographic tour of Wonsan, North Korea!

The Wonsan skyline on a hazy summer afternoon
Our hotel in Wonsan. Hot water only available from 7-8 AM

Wonsan Central Station

Caring for a public garden near ubiquitous statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il.

Men fishing off the public pier

Ferry that once brought Japanese tourists to Wonsan. 

Photographers waiting for customers

Wonsan art gallery
Painting displayed in art gallery. Classic "propaganda" art: leader (Kim Jung Il) gazing confidently into the future, before adoring legions, banquet served by leader,  everyone smiling. 
Day capped-off with seafood grill on nearby beach prepared
by our hosts. The clams were delicious!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Old Korean Path

Past the Dunkin' Donuts, between the Mercedes and BMW,  
And way beyond the endless, tall apartment complexes that fill the horizon, 
You can still find an old mud path that runs alongside a shimmering green rice paddy. 
Take it to the end, turn right,
And there you may catch a glimpse of the old Korea you once knew.

Village homes in countryside near Daegu, 1974
Stream and fields near Daegu, 1974

Mud path heading back in time

Thursday, July 24, 2014

North Korea: Unwrapping the Mystery Inside the Enigma

The U.S. State Department’s bulletin of May 21st was unambiguous. It strongly recommended against travel by Americans to North Korea. This warning was based on several recent and worrisome incidents; the arrests of two U.S. citizens, one apparently after asking for asylum, the second for allegedly leaving a bible in his hotel room. Yet another American was serving a sentence in a North Korean labor camp. He still is.

It is not easy to sit on the fence when it comes to North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Its leaders have been characterized as ruthless, its policies and actions interpreted as reckless.  It’s universally seen as an international pariah--a rogue state like no other. In his January 2002 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush, famously labeled North Korea (along with Iran and Iraq) as one of three countries comprising the “Axis of Evil.”

We flew on Russian-made Air Koryo jets between Beijing and Pyongyang
Visiting North Korea had long been on my bucket list. I felt that I needed to experience this secretive and vexing place for myself. Once I discovered that U.S. citizens could, in fact, legally visit North Korea going through China, I signed myself up.  Our tour originated in Beijing, only a two-hour flight from my residence in South Korea where I teach English at a large private university. Koryo Tours, a British outfit, scheduled a mandatory briefing session, in their Beijing office, the day before we departed on our 8-day tour of North Korea. We listened intently to their recommended “Do’s,” and mostly, “Don’ts.” Don’t stray from the group at any time. No photos of soldiers or military installations. Don’t ask our North Korean tour guides challenging political questions that might be interpreted as insults to the leadership there. Suddenly, this adventure was becoming uncomfortably real.
Koryo Tours Office in Beijing, where we met for a pre-tour briefing

Our Russian-built plane landed in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital of 3.5 million, clearly the showcase of the country. The many photos of Pyongyang I had seen suggested a dark gray metropolis, devoid of color, with wide empty streets, its citizens, drab and humorless. Pyongyang, also known as the City of Monuments with its seemingly endless parade of statues, museums and edifices that honor the State, does lack both the vibrancy and excitement of its South Korean counterpart, Seoul. But it’s a city that somehow seems to make due in spite of endless obstacles, including an inferior infrastructure, and regular power outages. When the lights go out, no one misses a beat. Its subway, bus and trolley systems make impressive use of antiquated vehicles from the 70’s, 80’s, even the 60’s—most imported from former Eastern bloc countries.

View of the capital city, Pyongyang, from the 36th floor of our hotel
Our tour covered a wide swath of the southern half of the country and included a visit to Panmunjoem, along the DMZ, and the nearby historic city of Kaesong, where 120 South Korean-built and managed factories provide employment to over 53,000 North Korean workers.  Having previously visited the DMZ from the South Korean side, I was surprised by how low key and non-bellicose the North Korean soldiers were. In fact, I struck up a conversation with an officer who led our tour there. He was cordial and posed for photos with a number of us on the tour. Such informality never happens with their more serious South Korean army counterparts.

A soldier, Mr. Park, led our tour of Panmunjeon, at the DMZ. He was
surprisingly cordial and genuinely curious about my connections to South Korea.

I was impressed by the general friendliness of the North Koreans we encountered everywhere we visited. They are very much like the South Koreans I have come to know and respect for their earnestness, generosity and diligence. North Koreans seem to genuinely love their country and they are a very proud lot.  However, that should not come as a surprise.

The control of information by the State is complete and unrelenting, and has been since Kim Ill Sung came to power in 1945.  Authoritarian leadership, handed down through 3 consecutive generations of the Kim dynasty, now resides with 30-year old Kim Jung Un. North Korean newspapers, TV broadcasts, schools, billboards, banners, even public loud speakers, extoll praise for the country while spewing forth propaganda against the enemy, usually in the personage of the venomous Americans.

The ubiquitous statues of Kim Il Sung
and Kim Jung Il

The “elephant in the room,” is the network of prison camps long revealed by satellite imagery and confirmed by the few individuals fortunate enough to have made it out alive. Most recently, Shin Dong-hyuk, author of “Escape from Camp 14,” described the almost unimaginable brutality of the camps. It’s in these camps where 3 generations of family members are banished for crimes committed against the State. All North Koreans belong to neighborhood watchdog groups, comprised of 25-50 families.  Known as inminban, they are led by hardened middle-aged women who keep tabs on everyone and everything, cementing the foundation of the enterprise of fear run by Kim Jung Un and his minions. Everyone on the tour is aware of these camps. But, we avoid the topic for fear that just talking about them would put our guides at serious personal risk.

Our tour stops included a fertilizer manufacturing plant in Hamhung, an agricultural university in Wonsan, both cities along the east coast of the Korean peninsula, and a historic residence of a former king. At each site, we are greeted by a lovely hostess wearing the traditional and colorful Korean clothing called a hanbok. The story they tell us is always the same. We’re made aware when either Kim Ill Sung, Kim Jung Ill or Kim Jung Un visited the site and the amazing wisdom or expertise they imparted while there. Pictures of the visit are shown and the chair, pen or desk that they used, invariably have become sacred items.

Fertilizer factory in Hamhung with 1950's era equipment and rotary phone

Every North Korean wears a pin picturing one or both of the former leaders on a red background. Just as predictably, their framed photos are carefully placed visibly high on a wall in every family’s residence. Patriotism, devotion and obedience, at least publicly, appear to run wide and deep. They fill the spaces between everything, like mortar, securing the bricks of the State.

Manager of Pyongyang trolley maintenance yard wears badge with leaders'
photos--as does every citizen in the DPRK

Where does genuine loyalty begin? Where does it end? In what places does fear reside? It’s nearly impossible to discern in this place of cartoon-like images and monuments on steroids. During a radio address in 1939, Winston Churchill uttered these now memorable words. Russia, he said, “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” North Korea, its people, and its exploits, to this day, remains more of a mystery than Russia ever was.

Tour guide heads back to Juche Tower after giving tour

Photo credits:
Koryo Jet photo courtesy of Wikipedia
All other photos by Steve Schuit

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round--Sort of

A parent cannot casually consider, let alone confide in others, their preference for one child over another. To say "I love her more because she...," is a kind of parenting taboo, a quiet truth, yet a public blasphemy. And so it is when discussing Japan and Korea; children by experience from travels over decades. I walked the lanes of Kyoto as a 23-year old vagabond in 1974. Its streets were still musty from the rebuilding decades of the 1950's and 60's. I returned to Kyoto in 1988 after attending the Summer Olympics in Korea, and also took in Osaka, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Just recently, I returned to see the Osaka and Kyoto of 2014. 

Several contrasts between Korea and Japan are striking. For the moment, at least, I'll leave the possible explanations behind. The dynamics between drivers and pedestrians, the cleanliness of the streets, and the approach to day-to-day customer service, are amongst the most noticeable differences. 

In Korea, simply crossing the street requires guile, courage and faith in a higher power. Korea's roads are not only the intersections of vehicular traffic and pedestrians, they're where the Wild West meets Russian roulette. The rules are anyone's guess and your life is thrown to the whims of fate lying behind blacked-out car windows, hiding drivers lacking both time and discipline. In comparison, the streets of Japan are calm and predictable. A soothing courtesy, mixed with Japanese predictability, bestow order along Japan's streets. I was shocked by the lightness in my step as a crossed the streets of Osaka and Kyoto.

Clean and predictable: navigating Japan's streets is usually not a do-or-die situation
I remembered my incredulity when I visited the Japan of years past; how clean its streets were. Not just clean in the sense of "This place is relatively clean for a city of its size," but remarkably clean in the sense of "No cigarette butts to be found anywhere?" or "Hey, there's no trash blowing in the wind." That particular Japan remains unchanged. Meanwhile, here in Korea, to my utter chagrin, the street corners of my Korean neighborhood are essentially open-air containers for residents' trash: random furniture, food remnants of all types, assorted debris, garbage and even panes of broken glass--all pile up in spaces adjacent to where children play and people stroll.  These open and dangerous eyesores exist practically everywhere in Korea. They are frustratingly part and parcel of the landscape. The Japanese would not tolerate this. 

Much to my chagrin: a street corner in my Korean neighborhood
Recently, I ordered a few replacement parts for the LG refrigerator in my apartment. Two days later I was notified via text message that the parts had arrived at the local LG service center. The price was fair and the service I received at the center was prompt and courteous. It matched the slogan on the walls: "Excellence You Expect." That's the good, and the bad. Actually, I talked about the great service for several days because I was surprised by it. It is not what I have come to expect here in Korea--at least not consistently. 

At every turn in Japan (at least during this brief trip, to be fair), the working Japanese we encountered seemed to exist only to be of service. When we asked where the nearest ATM was, the clerk would turn to us and insist that he personally escort us: "Follow me." When I requested that an iron be delivered to my room, it seemed to arrive only seconds after I put down the phone. When we asked about the somewhat confusing ticket machines in the subways, a door suddenly opened where I thought a wall was. A head and white-gloved hands popped out pantomiming helpful directions. It became apparent: I should expect, not be surprised by, great Japanese customer service.

It's precisely because I love Korea that I find this all so unsettling. At every turn I hear that Korea aspires to be a top flight tourist destination. Truth be told, I've heard this refrain for four decades now. But as long as tourists have to risk their lives crossing Korea's streets, or dodge piles of trash as they travel from place to place, they won't be here long enough to enjoy the otherwise great Korean customer service that awaits them, here and there.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Korea's Safety Paralysis

These days the Sewol Ferry disaster is the talk of the country. The tragedy has squeezed every ounce of spirit out of Korea's conscience. As of this post, the bodies of dozens of young students still float in the cold, murky waters off Korea's southwest coast. What will the fallout of this deeply troubling saga be?

The ferry Sewol during headier times

Writers, analysts, citizens, parents and families who have lost children, and casual observers are all casting blame for the ship's sinking on an April morning as it was making its way from Inchon to Jeju Island. Some blame the captain and the crew for telling the passengers to stay in their seats while valuable time was lost. The crew, it seems, lost no time exiting the ship and saving their own lives. Many blame the president and governmental leaders for their questionable handling of the rescue. The prime minister has resigned and leaders of various maritime agencies have been prevented from leaving the country. Still others blame the ferry company owners for recklessly altering the ship, overloading cargo, and failing to even minimally train employees.

Far and wide from the site of this disaster, makeshift memorials dot the landscape of this grieving country. In a park here in Daegu, yellow ribbons hung along a line in the sun. Teenage girls, the same age as the victims of the Sewol, wrote messages expressing their sorrow. For now, sadness fills every nook and cranny of this country.

Students, about the same age as the students aboard the Sewol, place yellow ribbons
at a memorial
A student writes a message in memory of the lives lost

A Korean friend shared her perspective on the disaster. "Korea may lead the world in technology and manufacturing," she said, "but in terms of safety, we still behave like a developing country." Moments earlier, as I was about to cross a major thoroughfare to meet her, I watched half a dozen cars run the red light as pedestrians stood nearby.  It is common, in fact routine, to see Korean drivers run red lights here. Stop signs? Many are hidden from view, obstructed by poles, trees, and overgrown shrubbery. Otherwise, they are totally ignored.

Our campus is dotted with red stop signs located at various crossings and intersections. Over a period of 2-years, I have never seen a single Korean driver stop at any of these signs--not once. It is not surprising then, that Korea's per driver fatality rate is twice as high as that of the U.S.  Koreans seem to think that stopping at a stop sign is optional, more of a guideline than a law.

Disregard for safety,  it appears, was a key contributor behind the Sewol disaster. The ship had been dangerously overloaded nearly every time it left port since the inception of its service in Korea. Maritime and government officials at all levels seem to have either colluded with fleet owners, or overlooked freight safety regulations.

Many Koreans are expressing dismay and embarrassment about the state of safety in their country. Others wonder if their cultural tendency to rush from one thing to another, a dynamic known as "ppali ppali," is causing them to cut corners and to put people at risk.

Are Koreans moving too fast to "think safety?"

As I ponder this situation, an iconic bumper sticker comes to mind, "Think globally, act locally." Koreans have ridden the wave of success generated by their global icons such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, KIA and even Korean K-Pop. Yet when it comes to safety, safety close to home, most turn away.  As I was about to leave the park in Daegu, on that bright and sunny day, I watched hundreds of people, mostly young children, having fun biking in designated riding areas. Everyone was enjoying themselves. Only one child was wearing a safety helmet. Safety in Korea, it appears, is someone else's problem.

Safety, in Korea, is someone else's problem