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 (, 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 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.”

The cost of South Korea’s event-hosting obsession

This was originally written for Newsweek Korea for translation into Korean. — John 

By John Power

On its surface, the forgery scandal enveloping Gwangju mayor Kang Un-tae could be seen as just another of countless examples of corruption in Korean officialdom. Yet again, a public official stands accused of breaching legal and ethical boundaries to achieve certain ends. The alleged wrongdoing this time involves the forging of the signatures of a former prime minister and former culture minister to secure the city’s hosting of the 2019 International Aquatics Federation World Championships.

But the fiasco is also illustrative of a separate malaise within Korean bureaucracy: an obsession with hosting any international sporting event, no matter how costly, if it can be seen to showcase Korea to the world. Whether in relation to next year’s Asian Games in Incheon; the 2018, Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang; or the 2019 International Aquatics Federation World Championships, arguments for hosting international meets follow a familiar pattern. Hosting the prestigious event in question, we are told, will boost the local and national economy and enhance Korea’s image broad.

Pyeongchang’s Olympic bid committee and several private research institutes have put forward the economic argument, predicting that the Games will create billions of dollars worth of economic activity. Numerous other commentators have hailed the potential of the competition to boost national prestige. If all this wasn’t enough, the organizers have even claimed, with little elaboration, the Games will promote peace on the Korean peninsula. Similar arguments have been made for other upcoming competitions to be hosted here.

Yet the evidence from past events pours cold water on such lofty predictions. Even the 2002 World Cup, widely seen as one of the most successful events held here, was an economic dead loss, according to American economist Victor Matheson, who has studied the economic effects of international sporting competitions. He maintains that a modest increase in tourist numbers to the country was more than offset by the cost of new infrastructure for the competition.

“The overwhelming consensus of independent economists not on the payroll of the sports boosters is that stadiums, arenas, racetracks, etc. have very little long-run economic benefit,” Matheson told me in a recent interview I did for a related article.

As Matheson noted, the majority of the stadiums built especially for the competition at a cost of some $2 billion dollars are underused today. Were the finances of authorities bidding for such events in good shape, they might be accused of “only” wasting public money. But the state of local governments’ balance sheets, including those of Pyeongchang and Incheon, is such that bidding for such events seems positively reckless.

Yet one senses that economic arguments are not the primary motivator for many of those eager to see Korea host large sporting events, coming second to a much more visceral impulse: national pride. Korea, despite all its achievements at home and on the world stage, often gives the impression of a country highly concerned with what the world thinks of it. Successful bids such as Pyeongchang’s are constantly framed in terms of how they will project Korea to the world. Soon after Pyeongchang was announced as the host city for the 2018 Games, media here began discussing the so-called “Pyeongchang effect”– how the Games will improve Korea’s image abroad.

Koreans have much to be proud of in their country, and national pride is not without merits in measured doses. But it is worth asking who is served by costly competitions likely to leave future generations of Koreans in debt. The Korea of 2013 is not the same country of 1988, when it could be convincingly argued that the Seoul Olympics announced a little-known country’s arrival on the international stage. Korea today is the land of Samsung and Psy, and is probably close to being as well known to most foreigners as a middle-power crammed between China and Japan could expect to be. It becomes ever more difficult to justify spending billions of dollars in the service of abstract notions like national prestige as the country comes ever closer to a level of development comparable to the world’s wealthiest nations.

None of this is to say that Korea should never bid to host international sporting events. Events chosen with regard to the characteristics of their prospective hosts and submitted to rigorous cost-benefit analysis can no doubt benefit the country. But there should be no compulsion to bid for any and every international competition. Korea can afford to be selective. If anything, it cannot afford not to be.

[The Korea Herald] How can Korea boost its software industry?

By John Power

Korea may be known as an IT powerhouse, but its place in the global software industry remains decidedly modest. Korean software took up less than 2 percent of the global market last year. Even in the domestic market, more than 80 percent of software originates from abroad. In the view of the government, the monopolization of the market by chaebol affiliates, crowding out smaller players, is one of the main reasons for the relatively weak position of the local industry.

“We do not have a very healthy ecosystem in the domestic market,” Kwon Hyouk-woo, senior deputy director of the software division of the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, told Voice. “We do need a very healthy and clean ecosystem where both large and small companies could exist together, but I think in Korea we do not have that, because (of) system integration affiliates of large conglomerates, such as Samsung SDS, LG CNS and SK C&C.”


Law revision

To address this, the National Assembly in May amended the Software Industry Promotion Act to disqualify large affiliates from procuring government contracts. The change will come into effect in January. The government also initiated the three-year World Best Software project in 2010, committing 160 billion won ($147 million) to supporting local businesses.

“We have changed the law so those big companies like Samsung SDS, LG CNS and SK C&C will not be allowed to participate in most state-initiated projects on the establishment of infrastructure and software,” said Kwon, adding that embedded software, such as in cars, is among the most promising areas for Korea in the ministry’s opinion.

But not everyone in the field is on board with the revision.

Kim Jin-hyung is a professor at the department of computer science at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He was behind the establishment of AppCenter Supporters, a KAIST initiative to support software start-ups. The initiative, which receives support from NHN and the ministries of culture and knowledge economy, provides four incubation spaces for prospective entrepreneurs for three-month periods at a time.

Kim said that one of the biggest problems is the low pay and status of Korean software developers. In this context, he said, the revision makes little sense, as small start-ups are currently failing to attract graduates for employment.

“Most of the youngsters want to be paid well and want to work in big industry,” said Kim. “Samsung Electronics needs many engineers. They hire almost all the good engineers. So why would an engineer not want to go to Samsung Electronics, (but) go to a small company working for the government? It makes no sense.”

Compounding the pay issue is the way the government assesses developers’ work experience, added Kim. If a programmer’s company goes under, his experience is seen to die with it, he said.

“When you register with the government, a developer may lose (the value of) some experience because the company he used to work for is bankrupt … So, he cannot get enough pay,” said Kim.

Kim suggested more “subtle” government policies to support struggling start-ups than last summer’s law revision, such as widening the period of the year when government contracts are given out. Currently, the government only assigns projects in the second half of the year due to the way the state budget is handled, a situation Kim described as “ridiculous.”

“(In) the first part of the year, there is no project at all for the company … So they don’t hire, they just hire a developer as a freelancer, a contract for a short period. So there is no way to get trained. They have no chance to get experience in the same area.”

Wrong focus

Kim also indentified software piracy, including by government ministries; a work environment in companies such as Samsung Electronics that discourages the exchange of ideas and creativity; and ministry officials’ bias toward grand-scale projects as impediments to the industry.

Other experts see a problem of education and focus. Lee Jae-jin, a professor at the school of computer science and engineering at Seoul National University, said that the industry has too often been regarded as labor intensive rather than creative. At the same time, he said, the fundamentals of good programming have been ignored in favor of buzzwords such as “fusion technology.”

“We need to educate more high-level architects, not just people for coding,” said Lee. “Most government offices, most high-level offices think software is a labor-intensive industry. But, actually, it’s not. We need to change the view of how to see the Korean software industry.

“First we need to focus on the classical items and we need to do well in those classical areas and then we will move on to those fusion items naturally.”

There are also too few small companies producing new technology compared to Japan, Taiwan and the U.S., according to Lee.

“They just rely on the government funding, instead of focusing on developing technology or selling their product. I think 70 percent of those small companies rely on government funding.”

It is not just the government or industry that needs to rethink its attitude to software, but the public as well, according to some observers.

Perception problems

“The public is equally oblivious to the key role that software plays in the modern age and made little investment,” said Chung In-jeong, a professor at the department of computer and information science at Korea University.

“Most people prefer to download pirated versions of software instead of buying them. This leads to a low volume of sales, and software developers have little incentive to come up with new products when they make so little money.

“The public, for its part, should recognize that software is just as valuable as other tangible goods and they must pay for what software they are using.”

Yet, there remains cause for optimism about the future of the industry.

KAIST’s Kim, whose former students include the founder of KakaoTalk, said that students he sees are now releasing their own mobile applications and games straight from the classroom onto the market.

“They had no way to demonstrate their system (in the past). Teachers said ‘that’s good,’ but that’s all. But now they are putting their software developed in the school directly on the market. Some professors grade by the number of downloads for their project!” said Kim.

Mobile applications, he added, are among the most promising areas for Korean software developers.

“I am always arguing with officials in the Ministry of Knowledge Economy that software is different. You should think about small things. But it should be the best product in the world. Winner takes all. We don’t have to compete in all places, we should give up some places. But if we can be No. 1 in a small section, that’s enough.”

[The Korea Herald] How can Korea nurture better Olympians?

By John Power

It has been a tumultuous first week for Korea at the 2012 London Olympic Games. The disqualification of four of its badminton players, a number of controversial judging decisions and underwhelming performances have led to an at times rocky competition for the nation.

Nevertheless, team Korea had by Sunday easily met its goal of 10 gold medals and looks certain to make a top-10 finish in the medal standings. Korea has made the top 10 at six of the last seven Games, an impressive accomplishment for a country competing among a host of richer and more populous nations. The country is expected to bag more medals with the start of taekwondo, the national sport, at the Games on Wednesday.

It is entirely possible that Korea could best its record of 13 gold medals that it took home at the last Olympics by the competition’s end. Koreans, however, are not known for resting on their laurels, and expectations are ever growing.

Jin Jong-oh stands on the podium after winning gold in the men’s 50-meter pistol on Sunday. (Yonhap News)

“When considering the Korean population, a top-10 medal standing is a surprising goal in the Olympic Games, yet many people still want a higher medal rank. Recently, we can see the change of attitude about it,” said Ko Seong-kyeong, a professor at the Department of Physical Education at Daegu University.


Better medal rankings require better athletes ― how to nurture them is the question. The Korean Olympic Committee declined to comment, but part of the answer must come down to the country’s facilities for its national athletes, which have seen major development in recent years.

The country has two national training centers for its athletes: the Korea National Training Center in Taeneung in Seoul and the Jincheon Training Center in North Chungcheong Province, which only opened last year at a cost of 184 billion won ($163 million). Neither of the two centers responded to requests for comment in time for publication. The government also provides considerable incentives to high-performing athletes: medalists can receive exemption from military service, as well as benefit from a special government pension.

“We have continuously improved athletes’ training conditions, with two national training centers for competitive sports prepared and many other training complexes also established by local governments,” said Ko.

Advances in the science of sports have also had a big impact on Korea’s sporting success, Ko added.

“The sports science has developed with hardware during that period. Korea Sports Science Institute was established in 1980, in which a lot of sports scientists have contributed to improving athletic performance. Especially some sports like archery, gymnastics and skating have achieved great results.”

Chung Jae-yong, a sports journalist with Korea Broadcasting System, believes that Korea can realistically aim higher in the medal rankings in the years to come. But first, the country needs to change its “authoritarian” approach to fostering athletes.

“I definitely think a top five instead of top 10 is a possible goal in the future. However, to achieve this, Korea should change its approach to athletics. The state sport system’s authoritarianism limits the number of participants in athletics. Korea should launch a balanced system between athletics and academia so that it can expand the number of participants and also draw better talent.”

In his paper “The Authoritarian Policy in South Korean Sport: A Critical Perspective,” published in the European Journal of Social Sciences, Chung argues that much of the present system for selecting and training athletes retains the authoritarian basis of its establishment during the Park Chung-hee era. Park and subsequent leaders’ focus on using international sporting events as a tool for propaganda, Chung says, has led to a system which neglects the educational needs and well-being of athletes and the sporting needs of the general public.

“Especially for those student athletes who represent the country, their rights to be educated as normal kids are extremely limited once they are in the national training center,” said Chung.

“This issue should be addressed. Regarding athletes in general, the numbers of gyms and fields are not enough.”

Education issues

The student-athlete code, by which colleges and high schools allocate up to 3 percent of admission places to student athletes regardless of test scores, is one controversial legacy of the Park era. For young athletes, a majority of whom do not attend class regularly according to research, pursuing an education while training and competing remains a challenge. Having missed out on their education as young competitors, athletes can risk an uncertain future upon retirement.

“Many school (-aged) athletes have been absent from regular classes for their training and preparing for the Games, and some of them seem to record very low results in their school reports,” said Ko. “Athletes have to participate in the regular classes and sports leaders must guarantee it.”

For the long term, Chung sees that fundamental change is inevitable.

“Although there are signals that show the sport system is on the verge of change, the Korean government needs to keep pushing sport reform with a long-term plan … Major sports reform is inevitable not only for the human rights of athletes but also for better performance. The authoritarian system which was pretty effective in the old days is now hurting the growth of participants and blocking the best talent to dedicate their career to sports.”

Providing post-retirement opportunities and more facilities for the general public would go some toward better athletes in the future, according to Cho Young-han, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, who has writen papers on sport and nationalism.

“More infrastructure is needed: in terms of infrastructure, I mean more sport facilities ― not only for elite athletes, but also for general practitioners ― balanced education for elite athletes, and possible job opportunities as elite athletes and as trainers after retirement,” said Cho.

“If they are provided enough, more youth will get into sporting activities, which in turn (will) produce more talented athletes at the Olympics.”

Areas for growth

While it has shown Olympic prowess in recent decades, Korea’s success has not extended evenly across disciplines. Though Korea has excelled at archery and taekwondo, and had success in swimming, among other events, there remains obvious room for improvement in track-and-field.

“These track-and-field events, gymnastics and swimming are not popular sports in Korea,” said Ko.

“So many promising athletes have changed to popular sports because they can increase their possibility of success as a sports star.”

[The Korea Herald] Should foreign athletes get special naturalization?

By John Power

Never has it been more difficult to define what it means to be Korean. Unprecedented immigration to the country in recent years, and the demographic and cultural change brought with it, has challenged the assumption that Korean citizenship and ethnicity are synonymous. Inevitably, this blurring of identity has crossed into the realm of sport.

The Korean Olympic Committee last month rejected a bid by Brazilian footballer Eninho for special naturalization that would have allowed the K-League star to play for the national side. Despite the Korea Football Association and national side coach Choi Kang-Hee supporting his naturalization, the KOC ruled against the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors midfielder on the grounds that the player failed to demonstrate a basic understanding of Korean language and culture. The Ministry for Justice, which has the final say on cases of naturalization, is expected to follow the KOC’s recommendation.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ Eninho recently had the KOC recommend against his application for special naturalization. (Yonhap News)

Since the introduction of dual nationality in certain cases in January 2011, the KOC has made recommendations for special naturalization on behalf of four athletes, three in basketball and one in speed skating, all of which were successful.

Despite its brief as a sporting organization, the KOC takes into account cultural familiarity when making recommendations on naturalization. When asked why by The Korea Herald, considering that the decision ultimately rests with the Justice Ministry, a spokesman for the KOC referred to the current law.

“According to the Nationality Act article 7, one must have good conduct, have Korean language abilities and an understanding of Korea customs as basic requirements even in the case of naturalization, as written in the Nationality Act article 5,” said the spokesman who did not wish to be named.

“The opinions of the Korea Football Association and national team coach are taken into account in regard to sporting ability, but as this is a question of double nationality, other factors have been considered also.”

A spokesman at the KFA said the football association fully respected the KOC’s decision, saying it “was the end of the story” as far as appealing the decision.

The spokesman, who did not wish to be named, went on to say that the benefits of naturalization made it a sensitive issue.

“If you acquire Korean citizenship it means you can play in Asian Football Confederation countries as a non-foreign player so a huge benefit can be given by acquiring Korean citizenship,” he said.

Public acceptance

Regardless of legal decisions made at the governmental level, there remains the question of how accepting the general public is of visible minorities representing the nation.

“It seems that Koreans do not mind having ― or even like to have ― foreign athletes in certain professional sports such as baseball, basketball, etc. as long as they play well. I think that the demands for good foreign players in professional/commercial sports will continue and foreign athletes can play an important role there,” said Park Jung-sun, a professor of Asian Pacific Studies at California State University with an interest in South Korean identity and citizenship.

Park believes, however, that the Korean notion of “one blood” may mean the general public is not yet ready to embrace athletes with an outwardly foreign appearance. The public might be more welcoming toward athletes of Korean ancestry seen as “returning home” and “representing the homeland,” however.

“The Korean public may show a sense of disapproval, reluctance or even bewilderment if those foreign athletes are included in a ‘national team’ that represents Korea in the Olympics or similar international events. Although Koreans’ exposure to and understanding of multiculturalism have increased over the years, Koreans’ notions of ‘us’ and the nation are still, by and large, grounded on their shared blood.”

This view was echoed by the spokesman for the KFA.

“Cultural familiarity is quite significant for many conservative Korean people to allow foreign-born, foreign blood (people to play), obviously having a different appearance from the general Korean public. Still, Korean society is not fully open … we are in the process of (dealing with) that.”

Time needed

Stressing that it was his personal opinion rather than that of his organization, he said that Korea was still not ready for foreign-born players donning the national colors.

“It needs time to have a foreign player as a national player wearing the red shirt as a Korean representative, it needs time. It is not the right time or place, I think.”

Ko Seong-kyeong, a professor at the Department of Physical Education at Daegu University, believes that a public consensus is vital in any approach to the issue, whatever the opinion of sporting and governmental institutions.

“We must consider several factors for granting some foreign athletes special citizenship. Although some foreign players satisfied the legal guideline for citizenship and were permitted citizenship, we need public agreement. Especially, we have many native players in football, baseball and basketball. Therefore, before honoring national team players, we must try to make a public agreement.”

Koh emphasized, however, that foreign athletes have already made a major contribution to professional sport here.

Valuable contribution

“The foreign athletes playing in Korean leagues are very important to developing Korean professional sports. They are influencing the performance of native athletes to develop sports skill, manage and maintain fitness, and communicate with mass media. The native players have known about all this, but have not applied it in their sports fields. Therefore, Korean players have emulated them and have improved their sports ability.”

Another consideration is the risk of special consideration for athletes causing resentment ― both among Koreans and other immigrants.

“In the case of male athletes, the mandatory military service is a crucial issue,” said Park. “Hence, if a young foreign male athlete of military service age were granted citizenship without the obligation, it would generate much resentment and controversy.

“(Also), individuals who wish to gain Korean citizenship have to meet certain criteria. The criteria have been an obstacle to many foreigners including those with Korean heritage such as Korean Chinese. Thus, unless the same yardsticks are used for both athletes and non-athletes, it may generate resentment.”

KOC’s spokesman acknowledged this concern.

“We are aware that special naturalization is a privilege as compared to normal naturalization in which one must discard their original nationality. When considering the purpose of such a system, we believe that special naturalization cases should be constrained to thorough evaluation.”

[The Korea Herald] How can Korea boost tourism?

Korea isn’t a common choice for Western tourists, though it enjoys significant numbers of visitors from China and Japan. This piece was written in the context of common complaints by foreigners living in Korea that the country doesn’t do a good job of promoting its strengths. — John.

By John Power

Korean tourism has seen something of a boom in recent years. Foreign tourist numbers grew almost 50 percent from 2007-2011, from about 6.5 million visitors to close to 10 million.

This year, the Korea Tourism Organization aims to increase that number to 11 million. But despite the considerable progress in bringing in more tourists, Korea still lags behind some of its neighbors in the region. Thailand saw 19 million visitors last year, while Singapore attracted 13.2 million. China, the world’s fourth-largest country, welcomed 53 million visitors in 2010, the last year for which figures were available.

Moreover, Korea ranked just 32nd out of 139 countries in last year’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report compiled by The World Economic Forum. In Asia-Pacific, Korea placed 6th in the index, which measures how attractive a destination is to tourists.

Tourists get help from led jacket tour guides in Myeong-dong in Seoul. (Yonhap News)


Robert Koehler, a 15-year resident of Korea from the U.S. and author of two travel books on the country, believes better communicating the stories behind the sights could boost the industry.

“I think Korea has begun doing a pretty good job promoting what it’s got. It’s just a question of being patient and remaining on target ― the results will come. That said, like any place, a lot of places in Korea have great stories behind them, some of them not widely known. ‘Storytelling’ is just coming into its own, so those of us involved in promoting Korean travel need to be looking always for good stories to put a name to a place, so to speak,” he said.

For Koehler, this should include retelling not only the prouder moments of the country’s history, but the uglier events of its past as well.

“Not all history is pretty, but even the ugly stuff can be fascinating as long as you’ve got the confidence to embrace it and share it.”

Lee Jang-hyuk, an associate professor of marketing at Korea University, favors a different approach. Rather than dwelling on its past, Korea’s should be highlighting its vibrant present.

“… Make visitors experience Korea of today, not its history. For example, not many people visit Hong Kong and Singapore to visit museums. We’d better propose unique experiences such as concerts, sports events, theater (and) shopping supported effectively by Korea’s mobile and fixed Internet infrastructure. (For example) five-day free access to the Wi-Fi/LTE network for visitors,” said Lee.

In promoting the Korea of today, hallyu should play a major role, according to Lee, who pointed to the popularity of K-pop groups such as Girls’ Generation, whose music video for “The Boys” has garnered more than 45 million views so far on YouTube.

“I think recent K-pop stars would be appropriate models for information diffusion and sharing with target customers. For example, SM Town effectively leverages new media. It starts with YouTube archiving its singers’ videos and its singers communicate with their fans directly through Twitter as well as their Facebook fans.”

But despite the last decade’s upsurge in tourism, it is a common refrain that Korea suffers from its location between China and Japan, countries that loom large in any imagination.

Koehler cautions against inevitable comparisons to neighbors such as China, which he sees as unfair, despite Korea’s potential as a tourist destination.

“Korea is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, especially from other Asian countries, in no small part due to its growing ‘cool’ factor. Still, in terms of absolute numbers, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect Korea to compete with China. China is, well, China. There’s a reason it’s the third most popular tourist destination worldwide.”

But according to a spokeswoman for the Korea Tourism Organization, the organization does not see a disadvantage in the country having such imposing neighbors. If anything, it should be seen as the opposite.

“The proximity to China and Japan has a positive impact on Korean tourism as China and Japan have the world’s largest potential in regard to consumption,” said the spokeswomen who asked not to be named.

Distinct image

“In fact, Japan ― 33.6 percent in 2011 ― and China ― 22.7 percent in 2011 ― represent the largest proportion of foreign tourists to Korea. In addition, there is a synergy effect to attract tourists to Korea from long distance markets ― Europe, America ― who visit China and Japan because Korea is located between these two countries.”

She added that the KTO’s goal is create a distinct image of Korea in the minds of potential tourists, one which conveys Korea’s “unique and special energy” of “Gi” (energy), “Heung” (joy) and “Jeong” (affection).

“The KTO has been trying to create and promote a consistent image of Korean tourism. As a result, Korea is steadily improving its position as a tourist destination.

“The KTO is committed to promoting the image of Korea and attracting foreign tourists through the 31 overseas offices by participating in Tourism Fairs, holding road shows, and developing tourism products.”

The spokeswomen said that around $116 million would be spent on tourism promotion this year.

Nevertheless, the nation’s tourism strategy has come in for criticism. In September, the Federation of Korean Industries blamed over-regulation and a lack of tourism infrastructure such as accommodation and leisure facilities for Korea’s low ranking in tourism competitiveness.

As an example of excessive regulation, the FKI pointed to a rule that prohibits the construction of facilities within a 100-meter radius of cultural properties and in mountainous areas with slopes of more than 21 degrees.

In the view of the FKI, a country with the economic weight of Korea should be more competitive in attracting tourists.

“(Korea’s tourism competitive ranking) is far below where the country stands in terms of gross domestic product and national competitiveness, which are 13th and 22nd each,” it said in a statement.

In the run up to the opening of the Yeosu Expo, the issue of insufficient accommodation was brought back into the spotlight. Organizers admitted that Yeosu wouldn’t have enough accommodation to meet the estimated demand, and advised visitors to lodge in other cities such as Jeonju, Mokpo and Suncheon.

The KTO introduced its own brand of affordable hotels, called BENIKEA, in 2006 to address the wider problem, but the project drew criticism from media and lawmakers for lackluster promotion and scale.

Room for improvement

The KTO has also attracted the scorn of foreigners living here on occasion for what some have seen as stereotypical depictions of foreigners in its advertising.

“When we create the tourism advertisements about Korea for foreign media, we highlight the beauty of Korea rather than using stereotypes of foreigners,” said its spokeswomen. “Before producing the ads, we research views of foreigners through our overseas branch offices. Also, we reflect the views of foreigners on the results of surveys on foreign tourists ― for example, the International Visitor Survey issued each year.”

Koehler, who has worked in collaboration with the KTO, believes the agency has done a great job with a significant challenge, whatever room may remain for improvement.

“I think the KTO and other major tourism-related authorities have done a splendid job providing a wealth of information on a wide variety of tourism sites as well as on lodgings, dining, transportation, etc. I’m being honest here ― they really do. If there is room for improvement, it’s at the local level, where English language info about tourist sites in the locality is sometimes lacking.”

By John Power (