EXCLUSIVE: Key investor in Saenuri politician’s Jeju airport project used fake bank documents

The following exclusive exposing fraud connected to an investor in a major development project on Jeju Island is published in Korean in the latest SisaIn Magazine. The following is the English version of the story, unpublished elsewhere. It is not a direct translation of the Korean-language report, and contains additional details and background, but maintains the key elements of the story. — John

사본 - 20140629_161804By John Power and Eunsun Heo of SisaIn Magazine

A key foreign investor in a former Saenuri Party gubernatorial candidate’s project to build a new airport and other infrastructure on Jeju Island has used forged bank documents to claim having billions of dollars at his disposal, according to a months-long investigation.

Leonard Dillon-Kaijuka, one of two principal investors in the project spearheaded by ruling party politician Kim Gyeong-taek, has circulated multiple documents purporting to show bank deposits in his name ranging in amount from 1 billion to 5 billion euros. The “proof of funds” documents, which first appeared on an obscure whistleblower website based abroad, feature the apparent letterhead of Dutch bank ABN Amro Bank and appear to contain the signatures of bank officials. The documents are dated between 2009 and last year.

Dillon-Kaijuka, the president and CEO of Dillon-Kaijuka Associates, confirmed his ownership of the documents when confronted for this story, but claimed they are genuine.

He said the documents had been “hacked” by malicious former employees as part of a “defamation campaign” against him. He also said they had not been used in his business activities in South Korea.

“The documents are private financial banking documents, legal financial banking documents,” he said. “And (it is) very destructive when they are leaked in the public like they have been. Those are private documents. Banks know what they are – bank communications. Those documents enable banks to communicate with each other, privately.”

He further claimed the issuing bank was very “displeased” over the disclosure.

But a press official at ABN Amro Bank earlier told this writer that the documents are forgeries and the bank has no dealings with Dillon-Kaijuka.

“The ABN AMRO documents showed on the website are false and forged documents. Who makes those documents or who is using these documents is unkown (sic) to me,” Jeroen van Maarschalkerweerd, senior press officer at the bank, said via email.

When contacted for a response, Dillon-Kaijuka claimed the bank was protecting his privacy in disavowing the authenticity of the documents.

He further claimed to be a victim of media harassment and a campaign to destroy his business, both of which, he said, have racist motivations. Dillon-Kaijuka is an African-American.

The massive development project on Jeju, which calls for the construction of a new airport, “world trade center” and cultural center, was first reported in Jeju’s local media in February. At the time, Kim, currently the head of the government transition preparation committee for Jeju governor-elect Won Hee-ryong, was vying to be the Saenuri Party nominee for governor in the June 4 elections. Kim, a former vice governor of Jeju, failed to secure the nomination, but fellow Saenuri Party candidate Won went on to win the election.

The conservative politician, who is pursuing the project through his think tank Jeju Future Society Research Institute, signed a memorandum of understanding for the project with Dillon-Kaijuka Assoc. and another firm, GK Holding Group, on February 22, according to local news reports. The MOU stated the two firms were to provide $5 billion for the project, according to the reports.

The reports contained little information on the exact nature, terms and time scale of the development, which still remain largely unclear.

In April, Kim told local media he expected the transfer of the first $50 million in capital to a commercial bank by the end of the month and for a special purpose company to be established for the project in May.

When contacted for clarification last week, Kim told SisaIN the plan is still going ahead but has been delayed.

“We failed to get money by the end of April, therefore we changed our plan. We are going to wait for the money until the end of this month (June),” he said.

In late May, Dillon-Kaijuka told this writer that the official process of seeking approval for the project would begin after a base of operations is established in June.

“We understand that the first process requires that we have a presence there, and with that presence we have a significant cash deposit there, we understand that. And once that happens we begin to take those next steps (for government approval).”

He claimed to have discussed the project with both the U.S. and Korean governments but declined to provide further details. He further claimed not to know the value of the MOU, adding that he has “no idea” where the figure reported in local media came from.

A spokesman for Won, meanwhile, denied the Jeju governor-elect had any knowledge of the project whatsoever, adding that a decision has yet to be made on the construction of a new airport. He said Won has no personal relationship with Kim, and had appointed him to lead his preparation committee as a result of their election rivalry.

“Accordingly, successful candidate Won certainly could not have known about any past issue with Kim,” a statement from his office read.

The documents in question first appeared on a seemingly little-known website called The Whisteblowers. The website, which contains thousands of apparently leaked documents including financial documents and passports, claims to expose irregularities in finance across the world. Its two apparent operators, David Rea and Sanjay Kalpoe, claim to be former independent financial brokers from the U.S. and the Netherlands, respectively. Both individuals are listed as founding partners on the website of an apparent investment and asset management firm called Hammer Wealth Solutions.

Rea said the documents linked to Dillon-Kaijuka were provided by a confidential source in South Korea. This writer was unable to independently make contact with this individual.

Dillon-Kaijuka’s history in business is unclear. He refused to disclose his previous projects or source of his funds, saying only that he has an extensive network of investors.

The American national, who has been operating out of an office in Gangnam in recent weeks, said that he is in Korea to forge business ties with Africa.

“What we’ve promoted is a relationship between Jeju and the island of Zanzibar, which has a similar status as Jeju has here for Korea. And helping facilitate entry of Korean infrastructure and technology delivery to Africa — facilitate the relationship between Jeju and Zanzibar,” he said.

Dillon-Kaijuka Assoc., described on its website as a provider of “investment and development services,” is registered with the state of Illinois as a corporation, but not with the state or federal financial regulatory authorities. Entities that wish to sell stocks to the public generally must be registered with the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission or equivalent state authority, but corporations are not generally required to disclose even the nature of their business. Kaijuka said that his company does not trade in securities.

Along with Dillon-Kaijuka as president, an Alvertis Bell is listed as director of the corporation in state records in Illinois.

Alvertis Bell, aka Al Bell, is the name of one of the most famous figures in Motown, having co-owned Stax Records in the late 60s and early 70s. Bell did not return correspondence seeking to confirm whether he is the same person. Dillon-Kaijuka and Bell are also listed on official records for the incorporation of a company in Arkansas, the famous Bell’s home state, called Southern States Service Corp. in 1979.

Meanwhile, Dillon-Kaijuka Assoc.’s head office, located in downtown Chicago, is a space rented from Regus, a multinational company that provides rooms and phone-answering services to businesses. A Regus employee who answered the phone listed on the firm’s website confirmed that the company has no physical presence at the address. Kaijuka’s home address, as listed on his firm’s incorporation record, has an estimated off-market value of just over $50,000, according to Homes.com.

Song Young-ho, introduced by Kim as the effective manager of the project, said he was aware of allegations against Dillon-Kaijuka but does not believe them to be substantiated.

“We have heard about that rumor that Leonard Dillon-Kaijuka is not a reliable person and we tried to investigate if the rumor is true or not,” said Song. “And we asked him directly. Leonard answered that it was just a kind of slander. And we found that he was not accused of anything at all. We thought, if there was something wrong with him, there would be a record that he was accused or something. But he was not.”

A new airport on Jeju has been a recurring issue at election time, with the current airport predicted to reach full capacity within about a decade, according to a report in Jeju Weekly from 2010.

Both President Park Geun-hye and former President Lee Myung-bak pledged a new airport for the island during their election campaigns.

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Robert Koehler’s Korea

This article originally appeared in Groove Magazine. — John

When Robert Koehler reads the news from his home country these days, he is often left aghast. The longtime expat, magazine editor and author of one of Korea’s most popular English-language blogs sees the U.S. as in the process of “going in the toilet.”

“Our economy is in trouble, our politics — on both left and right — are a national disgrace, our pop culture more or less speaks for itself and our national discourse is, well, it just doesn’t seem serious,” the self-proclaimed “poli-sci guy” says.

In fact, he has returned to the U.S. mainland just once in nearly two decades. Koehler acknowledges that he is probably one of those rare expatriate breeds: a “lifer.”

“I have been here 17 years. This is my new normal now,” says the candid Long Island native. “Now I look at the United States, I look at an American newspaper and I’m like, ‘That’s really fucked up! I mean, how does anyone live there?’”

It wasn’t always so. In 1997, Koehler had little interest in Asia, let alone Korea. A yearlong stint with the Peace Corps in Tanzania had gotten him hooked on Africa. The corps, however, had other ideas. Rejecting his request to stay in Africa, the program instead offered him a chance to volunteer in Southeast Asia. Reasoning that being paid as a teacher somewhere that didn’t excite him was better than working for free, Koehler signed up to spend a year Korea before he’d presumably return to Africa. Nearly two decades later, the executive editor of SEOUL Magazine and man behind the Marmot’s Hole is still here, speaks Korean fluently, wears hanbok every day and has become one of the most influential voices in expat media. And he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I do feel like a lot of trends that are going to be shaping the future will be happening in this part of the world, whether it is not necessarily Korea, but it is Korea, Japan, China, somewhere,” he says, speaking in quick yet deliberate bursts. “In a way, this is where the future is, and it is an exciting place to be.”

Since 2003, Koehler’s outlet, the Marmot’s Hole (www.rjkoehler.com), has been an oasis of Korea-related news, polemics and gossip for foreigners whose information sources involve a toss up between the limited English-language media and impenetrable local press. His fluency in Korean allows him to translate stories from the local media that might otherwise pass by English speakers. The blog has also been the source of news tips for international journalists and a platform for other people with a public profile to respond to queries and controversies.

Photography is one of the major tools in his professional arsenal. It’s also a personal passion, a way for him to channel his fascination with his adopted home. Through his lens, Koehler often seeks out charm where obvious beauty is lacking, such as in a gritty, overlooked Seoul neighborhood or an aging bridge spanning the Han River.

“I love looking at the world. And Korea is a fascinating subject to photograph. The deeper you get into photography, the more you realize the world is a remarkably beautiful place. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, but picking up a camera helps me remember. It also helps me focus and it gives me a bit of discipline in life. And it’s not like I don’t need the discipline.”

Koehler is humble about the Marmot Hole’s influence. While his website may be a staple of many expats’ daily routine, this particularly irreverent expat finds the suggestion that they might rely on it for news “disconcerting” — especially when he usually prioritizes stories by whatever makes him “laugh most.”

In particular, he hopes his coverage of the Korean media’s stories about foreigner crime and other alleged deviancies doesn’t cause some foreigners to harbor skewed views about Korean society.

“But because I post a lot about that, some can come away with the assumption that the only time foreigners are talked about in the news is when they do something negative, which is not true,” he says. “There is plenty of positive news about foreigners out there. I just don’t find it amusing, so I don’t post it.”

The perception among some foreigners that Korea is far from welcoming is apparent in the site’s lively, often caustic, comments section — a highlight or hazard of the Marmot’s Hole experience, depending upon your preferences. Searing complaints from foreigners about their host country are rife, often matched by the defensive reactions of ethnic Koreans overseas. Ad hominem and withering scorn are routine.

Koehler, though, scoffs at “they gave me a fork” racism. In fact, he insists he has had no more than a handful of negative experiences as a foreigner in Korea. “We are dealing with a people who are proud of their identity, who are proud of their culture, who want to protect that and, yeah, sometimes they are not used to dealing with the ‘other.’ But there is also, ‘This is where you are, deal with it,’” he says. “I have been here 17 years and I can count the number of really, really unpleasant experiences on one hand. But for some people, it seems to happen all the time.”

He also argues that a lot of negativity about the country from foreign residents is inflated on the Internet. “How much of it is true, how much of it is true but they kind of deserved it, how much of it is literally, actually horror stories of woe befalling perfectly innocent individuals, I don’t know,” he says.  “I am just saying, I have had a good experience here. Most of the people I know who are socially well adjusted here made an effort to, if not fully assimilate, then certainly find a niche and kind of go with the flow.”

In over a decade at the coalface of expatriate chatter online, Koehler’s views about Korean society, and the place of foreigners in it, have evolved considerably. A look back at the Marmot’s Hole circa 2003 gives the impression of an entirely different author at the keyboard. Posts from the era — many of them attacking the newly inaugurated Roh Moo-hyun administration from a conservative slant — were angrier, cutting and more opinionated.

“When I started the blog, I thought I knew everything. Everybody’s like that, right? I was younger, you know. I knew enough about Korean politics to be dangerous, but not enough. So I thought I knew everything, and I would just be posting and posting and ranting and ranting,” he says.

But his interactions in those early years with a fellow blogger, Peter Schroepfer (a.k.a. Orankay), pushed him to change his mindset. Schroepfer, a Korean literature major who now works as a journalist for a Korean-language newspaper in the U.S., was fluent in Korean. “Not in an arrogant way, or saying, ‘you’ve got you believe this, you’ve got to believe this,’ but he’d help me out and point out that things may not necessarily be what I thought they were. Between that, and just doing it over a long time, and learning and learning and learning — and, you know how it is: The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know shit. I am actually kind of embarrassed about some of the stuff I wrote earlier, these long right-wing screeds.”

Now, Koehler is a lot more sympathetic toward Korean attitudes that he might have previously lambasted. “I have become a lot more understanding, if you will, or sympathetic, to what some people would consider nationalist Korean ideology. Partly because I sympathize with those line(s) of thinking back at home. Some of the stuff I previously thought was kind of stupid or irrational, I am now … (of the opinion that) maybe it is not so irrational.”

Despite being an immigrant himself, Koehler is skeptical about Korea’s move toward multiculturalism, which has been embraced enthusiastically by officialdom if not necessarily the overall public. He points to recent ethnic tensions in Singapore and periodic race riots in France as examples of what can go wrong when experimenting with mass immigration.

“The multiculturalism (in Korea), for instance, is very regional. The big cities, ironically enough, are largely Korean. The countryside is where you see a lot of the mixed marriages. That concerns me because the gulf between the urban and the rural in Korea is already large enough; now you are adding a friggin’ ethnic component to it,” he says.

“The nature of the multiculturalism worries me. It is a lot of imported brides. I don’t want to say it is all mail order brides, I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, but at the same time, I don’t see that as a healthy phenomenon. I don’t see the phenomenon that made that necessary as healthy, and I don’t see the phenomenon as healthy.”

But Koehler believes that, if approached carefully, immigration could bring about great changes to Korea. “I am a foreigner living here. My wife is a foreigner living here. I just think countries need to be careful about how they do these things,” he says. “I think immigration can help countries. It has helped the United States, for the most part. It brings in talent and whatnot, it brings in fresh blood and it can be an invigorating and productive phenomenon.”

Koehler himself seems to come closer to being assimilated than most Westerners here. As well as speaking Korean, he wears the traditional hanbok daily, both because he likes the way it looks and feels, and because he wants to support local traditional industries. While writing about travel and culture for Seoul Selection, he often seeks out less-traveled parts of the country and more traditional ways of living.

Despite more than 17 years of continuously living in the country, Koehler, whose wife is from Mongolia, still doesn’t have permanent residency, instead having to renew his visa every two years. To rectify this, he is currently undertaking the government-run Korean Immigration and Integration Program, which significantly eases the process of getting a permanent residency visa. It’s an arduous process that’s taken years for him to finally get around to, but he appreciates the premium that Korea places on citizenship.

“Korea is not like Canada. Canada gives out citizenship like it is fucking candy because, for them, it doesn’t really mean anything,” he says. “But Korea is different: Not only does citizenship mean something, (but) the culture, the society means something. So if you want to be accepted, you’ve got to work for it. They are not going to just give it out like candy — you’ve got to work.”

But can a non-Korean ever truly integrate into such a historically homogenous country? Can a foreigner ever really be Korean?

“Is it possible? I don’t really know. I know people (who) if they haven’t done it completely, they’ve definitely come close,” he says.

Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: the peninsula is changing.

“Korean society is changing. They are becoming more open to that sort of thing. Now you actually have a lot of people in the Korean press debating, ‘What does that mean to be Korean?’”

 

The cults of South Korea

The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat.

For more than six weeks, an obscure Christian sect widely described as a cult has dominated the news in South Korea. The reason: its alleged connection to a ferry sinking in April that killed more than 300 people.

Yoo Byung-eun, the founder of the Salvation Sect and alleged de facto owner of the ferry’s operating firm, has become the country’s most wanted man, with the authorities offering a $500,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. He and his family stand accused of corruption, poor management and illegal modifications to the ferry Sewol that prosecutors say contributed to its sinking with hundreds of high school students onboard. Despite a massive manhunt across the country, Yoo has continued to elude capture since a court issued a warrant for his arrest on May 22.

“They (the Salvation Sect) began around the early 1970s. Their doctrine is influenced by the foreign missionaries,” Tark Ji-il, a professor at Busan Presbyterian University and expert on cults in Korea, told The Diplomat. “According to them, they don’t need to repent again and again. We need only one repentance. Right after realization of sin, there is no need to repent again. Because, according to them, righteous man is righteous man, even if they have committed a sin.”

While Yoo is regarded simply as a church leader by some members, more devoted followers see him as a messianic figure, according to Tark.

But while the Salvation Sect is currently the focus of national scrutiny, it is just one of many shadowy religious groups operating in South Korea, a country with one of Asia’s largest communities of Christians, divided among an incalculable number of churches. While it is difficult to determine an exact figure, perhaps hundreds of cults exist in Korea, according to Tark. Even without concrete figures, he believes that South Korea is unique among Asian and developing countries for the prevalence of such groups. In his book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, journalist Michael Breen reported that one church minister in the early 1960s identified some 70 Koreans who claimed to be the messiah and had followers.

The definition of a cult is not uncontroversial, in Korea and elsewhere, with followers typically rejecting the pejorative term. Timothy Lee, an expert in Evangelicalism in Korea at Brite Divinity School in Texas, said that contemporary historians typically avoid “value judgments on religious phenomena.” He did, however, offer several possible criteria for making the determination.

“I would say when seeking to determine whether a religious group is a cult or a legitimate church, one has to, among others, consider these three criteria: the freedom with which one can affiliate and disaffiliate with the group, the transparency in its leadership structure, and the group’s attitude toward larger society, with a cult assuming a much more exclusivist and condemnatory attitude toward society.”

Certainly Korean fringe churches to have attracted the label have been implicated in fraud, brainwashing, coercion, and other behavior associated with cults worldwide. The most sinister have been linked to criminality as serious as systematic rape and even murder.

In 1987, 33 members of the cult Odaeyang, of which the current fugitive Yoo was once a member, were found dead in a factory in Yongin, about 50 km south of Seoul. It has never been conclusively determined whether the cult members, whose bodies were found bound and gagged, had been murdered or committed mass suicide. Followers of the group’s leader Park Soon-ja, who was also among the dead, had believed that the world, irretrievably mired in decadence, was coming to an end.

Busan Presbyterian University professor Tark’s own father was murdered by a member of another cult in 1994.

In 2009, the leader of a South Korean cult known as Providence or Jesus Morning Star, among other names, was convicted of the rape or sexual assault of four of his female followers.

In April of this year, a television documentary for Australian broadcaster SBS detailed how the church was continuing to groom women in the country as future “brides” for its head Jeong Myeong-Seok, who is reported to have told his followers that their sins could be cleansed by having sex with him. Two Australian former members of the cult claimed they had been encouraged to write sexually explicit letters to Jeong and were even taken to Seoul to visit him in prison.

Providence/JMS is also one of several groups based in Korea to have a notable presence abroad. Perhaps no controversial Korean church has had more impact outside of Korea than the Unification Church, commonly referred to as the “Moonies,” which saw modest recruitment in the U.S. during the 1970s. It has faced accusations of brainwashing its members, a claim denied by the church as well as some independent religious scholars.

What most of Korea’s controversial religious groups have in common is that they can be traced back to one of three periods in the country’s modern history, according to Tark: the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and the period of military dictatorships that reached the peak of its authoritarianism in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the case of the former two periods, Tark said, instability and hardship helped popularize religious organizations that offered solace and valorized suffering.

“Right after 1931, it looked very hard to be saved from the Japanese occupation so they focused on Jesus Christ, who suffered on the cross. So it is a kind of mysticism,” he said.

During the dictatorship period, meanwhile, many cult leaders could gain a foothold by supporting the government, unlike a lot of the anti-dictatorship mainline Protestant churches, according to Tark.

Various opinions exist as to the appeal of Korea’s fringe religious groups.

Peter Daley, a longtime resident who has researched cults in Korea since 2003 when his roommate became a member of Providence/JSM, said that one reason may be the relative lack of ambiguity in their teachings.

“With these groups, there’re no shades of grey, everything is absolutely, ‘yes, this guy is the messiah, yes, if you follow him you’ll go to heaven,’” said Daley, who claimed that his website jmscult.com and work with media has seen him threatened by disgruntled followers. “Some people feel that the … more mainstream groups sometimes don’t make these grandiose claims. So when a group comes along with all the answers to ‘a,’ ‘b,’ and ‘c,’ that can be appealing to some people.”

Peer pressure and the deference toward one’s elders present in Korea society also work to the advantage of cult leaders, he said.

“Then you get these older Korean guys dressed up in suits; it can be hard for a younger Korean person to question that, especially when a new member is thrust into an environment where there are a lot of current members.”

Many groups are also highly Korea-centric, basing their beliefs around the idea that the country and Koreans themselves are somehow favored by God or otherwise special.

“Because they believe the new messiah is a Korean, the new revelation is written in Korean, the new nation (of people) who are going to be saved – 144,000 people – are Koreans, or the kingdom of God will be established in Korea (they can have many loyal Korea followers),” said Tark.

A cultural aspect of another sort may also be at play, according to Lee, the Brite Divinity School professor.

“I am not sure whether the number of cult-like organizations in Korea is, proportionally speaking, larger than in, say, Japan or the United States. But compared to Westerners, Koreans tend to be less individualistic and more communal, disposing them to affiliate with some organizations, which will typically assume some familial shape,” he said.

“And if leaders of such organizations develop a sense of religious calling that is looked askance by the larger society, gather followers around them, and insist on their practicing exclusivism, you have the beginnings of cults.”

Gay pride in Korea and foreign ‘interference’

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea.

In a country where homosexuality remains in the shadows, last weekend’s celebrations for the annual Korea Queer Festival were notable for their scale and bombast. As many as 5,000 people attended a parade in Seoul’s Sinchon on Saturday, according to news reports. Some of those present felt comfortable enough to dress flamboyantly, with at least one man apparently happy to pose to be photographed in nothing but a thong. And while the festival’s official website still requested that media obtain permission before capturing any participant’s image to protect them from possible repercussions, organizers in previous years had gone as far as banning photographers outright.

The parade still, inevitably, encountered resistance, in the form of conservative Christians, who at one point blocked the parade from proceeding. Amid a significant police presence, some protestors reportedly hurled insults at the gay, lesbian and transgender marchers. Among other grievances, the anti-gay protestors held gays responsible for the spread of AIDS and divisions in Korean society.

More interesting was their charge that Westerners, namely the U.S., French and German embassies in Seoul, were imposing their supposed moral laxity on a resistant Korean society by participating in and offering their support to the festival.

It was interesting because, deliberately or not, it played upon an accusation that makes many Westerners squirm, especially those who are white and of a liberal disposition. Whether they are taking a conscious position or acting on reflex, such individuals are uncomfortable with the idea of privileged Westerners passing judgment on cultures that are not their own.

Such moral relativism about culture has gained a degree of authority in pockets of academia and the media. Accordingly, journalists and academics have criticized the imposition of “Western standards” of human rights on other cultures, from prominent feminist Germaine Greer comparing female genital mutilation to genital piercing in the West, to one humanitarian aid worker opining in a British newspaper that “No one should ever be tortured, arbitrarily executed or held in slavery, but notions such as freedom of expression, religion and sexual relations do vary in different parts of the world. The right to private property is basically a western concept…”

In the case of gay rights in Korea, the obvious get-out-of-jail-free card for the cultural relativist who also champions sexual minorities is that plenty of Koreans are tolerant or even welcoming of gay people. They could point out, correctly, that the main drivers of the gay pride festival are Koreans, not foreigners.

But this hardly resolves the contradiction satisfactorily. No culture, however that word is defined, is monolithic. Not everyone in Saudi Arabia believes that it should be illegal for women to drive, for example. But there is clearly a cultural chasm between that country and the rest of the world that makes something as innocuous as women drivers so objectionable as to be banned.

It is undeniable that Korean society, at large, is uncomfortable with homosexuality. In fact, to say as much is to stretch a euphemism to breaking point. In a Pew Research Center survey carried out last year, 59 percent of Koreans answered “no” to the modest implications of the question, “Should society accept homosexuality?”

Nor is it enough to point out, again correctly, that Christianity was introduced by the West in order to argue that more “authentic” Korean culture treats the issue much differently. On top of the fact that only a minority of Koreans are Christian, the Confucianist elites of the Joseon Dynasty had little tolerance for homosexuality.

Consistency would demand that the cultural relativist at least equivocate about, if not actually oppose, foreign embassies’ support for sexual identities considered unacceptable by the local culture.

It’s perhaps a measure of how drastically attitudes to gay people have changed across the West – to the point where opposing, rather than supporting, gay marriage is now more likely to result in social and economic repercussions — that I failed to observe any online commentary from foreigners in Korea that sympathized with the Christian protestors’ argument.

Another likely reason is that it would be easy to compartmentalize the anti-gay sentiment as a problem of Christians – often far from loved by the young, university-educated foreign residents who typically make their views known on the Internet – rather than Koreans.

But that just avoids wrestling with the core issue. What the gay pride episode should make plain is that culture cannot be the sole determinant of what is right. The only sensible way to assess ethics and culture in tandem is to strip the latter of its untouchable aura that creates such anxieties about racism. Most important should be the ideas in play.

Intellectual rigor absolutely demands that the foreign observer inform himself about the culture he seeks to criticize. But that is different from making identity the final arbiter of moral judgment.

If it made no sense to judge the foreign element in the gay pride celebrations through the lens of culture, the same will be true the next time culture is used to skirt criticism on a question of ethics or rights in Korea.