Sunday, June 27, 2010

Back to civilian life for good

I finally got done with the army, which still feels unreal. People say you have nightmares that you get drafted again after you get discharged, but that hasn't happened to me yet. I came out almost every month this year, so the world doesn't feel so strange, but still, there are a few things that remind me that I was locked up in the army for the past two years, like some military vocabularies that randomly come out of my mouth. But it's all good, and I'm just so glad that it's all behind me now.

The army experience probably was the worst experience in my life. I guess the only thing that comes close to serving in the Korean army is...well, doing time in prison. Although I have to tell you things do seem to have improved a lot in the army, like you don't get physically abused any more, but losing all the freedoms you had taken for granted all your life is still pretty bad.

I was supposed to be a translator and interpreter because the Korean army does a lot of trainings and exercises with the U.S. army, but I did a lot of admin work as well. You'd think you'd be running around with guns all day in the army, but due to the Korean army's obsession with making everything look good, there are people like me, a lot of them actually, sitting all day in the office, cutting paper, decorating reports and wrestling with Powerpoint slides. Oh, and making coffee for the officers. Even if I served in the army against my will, it wasn't what I signed up for.

By joining the army, you become part of the cheapest labor force in the country regardless of your background, despite which, they expect you to do so much work. With the skills and dedication required of the work, you'd make whole lot more money than $90 a month you get in the army. When I saw bright young men in their early 20s, some of whom go to such elite schools as Harvard, exploited like slaves, I couldn't feel sorrier.

Well, the good news is I'm out of it now. I just hope Kim Jeong-Il doesn't do some crazy stuff.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Back to civilian life

I came home for the first time since I joined the army, and I can't say anything other than it's so sweet to be a civilian again, albeit temporarily. The army changed my whole world, but the world around me doesn't seem to have changed all that much. It feels so familiar to live a civilian life again that I can't even believe I'd been in the army for the past five months. The army experience is still so unreal to me.

The army life isn't that bad, though. I'm treated ok - I may not be respected, but at least I don't get beat up like in the past. And I don't do much physical stuff. Instead, I've been doing a lot of menial work, like cleaning and making coffee, and a lot of word processing. It's not something you would normally expect someone with my background and experience to do, but in the army, I'm just a lowly private.

What sucks is that I'm stuck in the base 24/7. I can't bring in my ipod, so I can't listen to music I want, which is pretty hard for me. With nothing better to do, I read a lot and work out pretty regularly, though since my job doesn't really involve physical training, I'm by no means in a soldier shape.

I still got a year and a half to go in the army, and honestly, I already know it's gonna be the longest one and a half year in my life. But life goes on regardless, and someday I'll get outta there for good. The hope is the only thing that keeps me going now.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Addiction to chaos

While it's been almost a month since I last updated this blog, the street protests against U.S. beef haven't stopped yet. Actually, they seem far from being over. The rallies are still being held every night into the dawn, with an increasingly diverse spectrum of people joining in.

I believe people's freedom to express their opinions is sacred and should be respected. I know how depressing a society can become when such rights are denied - I guess a prime example is Singapore, which pretty much prohibits any kind of public demonstrations. But watching the protests here, I can't help but feel something's wrong.

This week, a group of labor unions, led by those representing Korea's flagship carmaker Hyundai, announced that they'll go on a strike, and oddly, their demands include the withrawal of the beef agreement with the U.S. The labor union of Hyundai goes on a strike almost every year any way, and it seems like they just conveniently took on the beef issue this year, because that's what everyone's talking about these days - so much so that even a Catholic group took to the street.

In the beginning, the protests were prompted by genuine concerns about health, but it's quite hard to understand what's keeping the protesters on the street now. The president has appologized publicly twice, and the government managed to deliver what people wanted through additional negotiotions with the U.S. I thought that would've been enough to calm people down, but apparently it wasn't. Ironically, the first shipment of U.S. beef that went on sale this week sold out in less than a day, according to the media.

Maybe people just don't like the president any more - the same guy they voted for just months ago - like in a bad marriage. The Wall Street Journal did a story on this, saying the root of the protests is disappointment in the president, although they started because of U.S. beef. I'm not a big fan of the president myself , and I wouldn't have voted for him, but it seems a bit too soon to judge him now, especially given how people elected him with such overwhelming support.

To me, it seems more like people came to know what it tastes like to get what they want by demanding it, and they are getting addicted to the taste, not knowing when enough is enough. After all, the current protests have long lost their legitimacy, by allowing irrelevant self-interests to get in the way.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

New era of expensive oil

Things are officially nuts - diesel prices have surpassed already crazy gasoline prices here. When my parents bought their first diesel-powered SUV four or five years ago, they were delighted that they were going have to pay only a third of what they had been paying to fill up the tank.

Diesel prices, however, have been rising steadily, at a faster pace than other petroleum products including gasoline, as global demand increased. At the same time, the Korean government has been raising the domestic tax on diesel with a goal to make it almost - but not exactly - as expensive as gasoline. The idea is to protect the environment by curbing diesel consumption. Combine these two factors, the result is people being forced to pay more for diesel than for gasoline at the pump, although in theory, diesel is supposed to be cheaper than gasoline because of the quality differential.

Refiners must be having a field day - who would've thought they could sell diesel at higher prices than gasoline? Particulalry, Korean refiners are so-called "export-oriented" refiners, with products like diesel making up the bulk of their exports. So, as long as overseas folks like China buy, they will make money.

Meanwhile, SUV drivers like my parents are getting screwed, but more broadly, truckers and bus drivers will be hit hard, and eventually, the impact will be felt by consumers. As such, truckers' unions are threatening to walk out if the government doesn't do something about this. And the government is busy trying to come up with a solution, looking into giving subsidies to certain businesses or even lowering the tax.

But with oil prices trending up, we all know none of these measures will solve the problems fundamentally, especially given that using fiscal policies to control oil prices can only be detrimental to economies. So everyone's hands are tied. Perhaps it's about time to really give a serious thought to going green.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Being a president in Korea

Being a president and being popular at the same time seem like a tough, if not impossible, job in Korea. The approval rating for the current president here has nosedived in just a few months, from something like 90% to below 30%. Behind this is the whole beef controversy, for which he appologized through a televised conference, looking more serious than ever.

But certainly, he isn't the only president who the public has turned their back on so quickly. Actually, I can't think of a single president who was particulalry popular while in office.

The relationship between presidents and the public here is pretty strange. Roh Moo-hyun, the previous president, was probably one of the least popular presidents during his term, with an approval rating around 50% when he left office.

As the New York Times reported, he's a rock star now, with hundreds of people waiting outside his house in the countryside to see him upfront every day. Humbleness seems to be the reason why people are going crazy over him now, as he lives among ordinary people, unlike other former presidents who live in heavily guarded mansions. But when he was in office, not a day went by that he didn't get attacked by the press for whatever he tried to do, and as such, people blamed literally everything on him.

During Roh's administration, there was this nostalgia about Park Jung-hee, who was a brutal milatary dictator in the 1970s. People feared Park like the devil back in the days, but 30 years later, people are saying they miss his leadership which led the country out of proverty, as Korea's economic growth seems to be slowing down.

My theory is that the Koreans, as impatient as they are known to be, want quick answers to their problems from their leaders, and if there's no visible improvement in their lives, they get disappointed just as easily. And then they look back, as the old Korean saying goes, "old officials are good officials."

But often people forget they are the ones who picked those people as their leaders. Especially in case of current president, people had every reason not to vote him, given he was mired in shady scandals, but people still gave him a landslide victory. Hope people learned something this time around.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dejavu: Singapore penetration

When I first went to Singapore two years ago, I was pretty surprised to see Korean stuff everywhere. I had heard about the "Korean wave," but I had no idea it was that big in Asia.

Now, since I came back to Seoul, I've been seeing ads for Singapore on quite a few occasions. It seems like there's some big Singapore tour promotion going on here, and on top of that, some rare Singaporean brands have made it here.

Come to think of it, I think I've actually read in the Straits Times that Breadtalk was trying to branch out to Korea, and indeed, I've seen a couple of Breadtalk shops here, with pretty big crowds curiously picking up bread in there. It was a dejavu of a bunch of Singaporeans standing in circle outside DVD shops, aimlessly watching Korean dramas.

I think they put up a big banner saying, "Singapore's Breadtalk finally arrived in Seoul," or something. As lame as it sounds, it was intriguing enough to almost drag my friend in - that is, before I stopped her. We also have Kaya toast, advertised as the Southeast Asia's finest product, and I can't wait to see a hawker center open in the middle of Seoul one day.

All of this must be part of globalization at work, and I should give it credit for dragging the Lion city out of its little box.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Beef fiasco

There's been huge protest against the Korean government's decision to resume importing American beef. Thousands of people have been holding candlelight vigils across the country, asking the government to withdraw the agreement with the U.S., which was reached just in time when the Korean president was on his first trip to the U.S.

People may be overly concerned about American beef and mad cow disease, but their fears are ligitimate, since their health is at stake. But public health is probably the last thing politicians care about at the moment. The pro-business, pro-American president must have wanted to get the beef issue out of his way so he can move on and talk with the U.S. about ratifying the FTA as quickly as possible.

Indeed, the FTA was all he talked about during his trip to the U.S. And the news of the beef agreement, which was signed in Seoul, was privately broken to the president first when he was in the U.S., even before the negotiations offcially wrapped up and before any of the Korean media got hold of it. A reporter who followed the president at the time in Washington said the president and the Korean delegates drew a cheer from the American crowd while relaying the news, and put an embargo on the news.

The ruling party is blindly supporing the president, although they were the ones who opposed the resumption of American beef imports when the previous government was under pressure from the U.S. Back then, they said bringing in American beef could seriously jeopardize public health, but it has become clear now that all they wanted was just to bash the then leftist president and administration, because that's the way Korean politics works - all that matters is which party you belong to, no matter what ideas and values your party represents, and flipping sides isn't that big of a deal.

The current opposition parties are just doing that. Are they criticizing the government because they worry about people? Some may do, but I doubt that's the sole motive. They are attacking the government because they are on the opposition side, and they've been taking advantage of the deteorating public sentiment against the government amid mounting fears of mad cow disease.

Talking about people's fears of American beef, there's another side to this issue. Such fears are valid to some extent, but the problem is that the fears in large part were created by groundless and non-scientific hearsay about the danger of American beef that the Korean media spread. And the result is near paranoia about eating American beef.

This is a classic case of how statistics and scientific studies can fool you. One example: a broadcast station aired a documentary, saying how dangerous it is to eat American beef, especially for Koreans. It cited some statistics showing all of the British people who got mad cow disease had a certain type of genes, which 90-something percent of Koreans have. Therefore, Koreans are more likely to get mad cow disease than any other races. In response, the government claims, backed up by some doctors and health experts, that just because those Brits and Koreans have the genes, it doesn't mean Koreans will get mad cow disease more easily.

At this point, the truth doesn't matter to them any more. What matters to them is spotting flaws in each other's argument, and win the debate, using all those stats and obscure studies. And while they are at it, the public is out there on the streets, begging to be part of the game.