[The Christian Science Monitor] Having built nation from scratch, elderly S. Koreans feel abandoned

Jeong Soon-ja spent a lifetime working and raising children as part of a generation that lifted South Korea from rural squalor and postwar ruin to become the world’s 15th  largest economy.

Yet like many of her peers, Ms. Jeong lives in poverty and isolation. Too frail to work, her husband gone, her children seemingly disinterested, she survives on a government pension of about $200 a month, plus a monthly allotment of kimchi and rice from a district office in the gritty Seoul neighborhood of Gaebong-dong, which lacks the glitz of districts like Gangnam.

“When I was young, I should have saved money, but I had to feed, clothe and teach my children,” says the octogenarian, who sits on her haunches, a stance ingrained among older Koreans. She did laundry and maintenance work all her life and now has no pension, and says, “my money is all gone.”

Family ties weakening?

Jeong’s situation is becoming more common among a generation given credit for aiding South Korea’s lightning rise to manufacturing and high tech prowess. A new government-funded study shows nearly half of South Koreans over 65 living in relative poverty as recently as 2011, in a society whose traditionally strong family bonds are weakening.

One of Jeong’s six children pays her rent and utilities. But in a culture that honors the elderly, she hasn’t seen her eldest or youngest daughter in five years, and rarely hears from the others.

Almost half of elderly South Koreans earn less than 50 percent of the median wage, according to a March study from the Korea Labor Institute. That abysmal rate is the lowest of all countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and is twice the figure of second-ranked Switzerland. (In Japan, a recent study found nearly half of the 1.6 million Japanese living below the poverty line were elderly.)

In South Korea, most seniors in financial straits live alone. Whereas it was once common for three generations to live under one roof, about one in five elderly citizen now resides in a single-occupant household.

Low birth rate

“In the past, when a grandfather and grandmother, or a mother and father, taught their children, those children had a responsibility to support them because living all together like this was a help to everyone,” says Kim Hyun-mi, general manager of the government-affiliated Comprehensive Support Center for the Elderly Living Alone. “But now, you can see that support has weakened because they live separately.”

The challenge of providing for the old is particularly acute in South Korea, which has one of the most rapidly graying populations in the world, a consequence of a chronically low birthrate.

Jo Joon-yong, a professor of social welfare studies at the regional Hallym University, says that the elderly are projected to account for a quarter of the population by 2030, creating a potential future crisis for the welfare system.

“To maintain a social security system, you need a young generation to pay taxes and premiums for the social insurance system,” he says.

Amid the decline in filial piety in Korean families, the government has only marginally plugged the gap in support. Last year, South Korea had the lowest social spending of any OECD country.

President Park Geun-hye campaigned in 2012 on a pledge of introducing a universal state pension of about $200 a month. But that figure got scaled back to about $100-200 for the poorest 70 percent of seniors. Seniors who receive such benefits potentially lose out on separate, means-tested assistance for the poor.

Problems of living alone

The feasibility of more generous welfare schemes has been a political flash point between liberal and conservative politicians in a nation that is roughly divided along these general lines. Political gridlock may be slowing welfare reform, but more social spending in future appears inevitable, given the aging population.

“I think that because it is now in the beginning phase, welfare benefits for the old are insufficient compared to other countries, but in the future welfare benefits will be provided stably just like in advanced countries,” says Ms. Kim, the support center official.

Mental health, loneliness, and what Kim calls “emotional problems” are becoming more pressing concerns among elderly living alone, she says.

South Korea has the highest overall suicide rate in the OCED, and men aged 80 and above die by their own hand at almost five times the rate of those aged 30-39, according to government statistics.

Jeong, who speaks in loud, defiant bursts, insists she is satisfied with life. She regularly meets friends. But she also admits to being lonely.

Above all, she misses her daughters, who she has become convinced no longer love her. Even when she recently was hospitalized for an emergency, they did not visit.

“I really miss my daughters but they never contact me,” she says. “I miss my daughters the most. That’s the saddest thing.”

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[The Christian Science Monitor] ‘Nut rage’ in S Korea spotlights culture of punishing long hours

South Korea’s “nut rage” scandal has unleashed long-simmering public resentment over the makeup of family-run conglomerates here.

Now the saga – where the daughter of Korean Air‘s chairman turned around a taxiing aircraft after being served bagged nuts in first class – is casting a light on the country’s relentless work culture. New revelations show the chief flight attendant who oversaw the nuts presentation was ordered to work shifts lasting up to 18 hours.

Testifying at the trial of the daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, who at the time was a Korean Air vice president, flight attendant Park Chang-jin said he was assigned a “work schedule from hell” after the incident that received international press attention. Ms. Cho potentially faces three years in prison if convicted of assault and aviation-safety related charges.

Mr. Park’s testimony resonates strongly in a society with some of the longest work hours in the world, undergirding a work culture that has seen South Korea rise from poverty in the 1960s to the top ranks of world economies.

According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Koreans on average work 47 days more days a year, about a month and a half, than their American peers.

Yet as Korea punches above its weight as a economic force after decades of a work ethic designed to help it surpass its neighbors, and former peer North Korea, a new round of grumbling about over-work and work place policies is starting to emerge.

No time for hobbies

Son Hye-jin, a sales representative at a clothing export firm in Seoul, for example, often feels she has no life outside the office. She begins work at 8 am, and doesn’t finish until 7 or 8 at night. Weekends are no guarantee of relief, as work often extends to Saturdays.

“If I had some free time, I think I would like to learn this or that, or take up a hobby, but it’s impossible because I don’t know how much overtime I will have to do,” she says. “You’ve no choice but to work, right?”

Small and medium-sized firms are notorious for pushing employees to work schedules at odds with labor laws that are supposed to strictly regulate work hours and pay.

As an employee at a mid-sized IT firm, 24-year-old Lee Eun-woo says she often worked for up to 17 hours to please her boss. “I was depressed. I really wanted to quit my job, but it was impossible because it is extremely hard to find a job in Korea these days.”

Like Son and many others, Lee wasn’t compensated for the mountains of work that extended outside her official workday of 9 to 6 and that she was expected to handle.

“That’s the reality at most small and medium companies. In our country, the places that actually give you money for overtime are large companies. At other small companies, it’s really hard to get.”

Social gatherings after hours

The rigors of work don’t end in the office. Employees often must attend afterwork dinners that turn into drinking sessions, called “hoesik.” While ostensibly set up to relieve work pressure and encourage bonding, such gatherings are often stressful, especially for women because of hierarchical norms.

“In the ‘hoesik’ culture, as a woman, the boss forces you to drink and tells you to show off your ‘aegyo,” says Lee, referring to a Korean expression for a type of affected cuteness prized in women.

At one such drink-fueled outing, Lee says she witnessed her former boss hit a subordinate for no apparent reason. As a lower-ranking employee, he had no choice but to accept his boss’s abuse, she says.

Korea’s demanding work culture largely stems from its rapid industrialization after the Korean War, according to Park Tae-gyun, a history professor at Korea University in Seoul. Park Chung-hee, a dictator who ruled for 17 years from the early 1960s, and is widely seen as the father of the country’s modernization, used South Koreans’ insecurities toward regional rivals like Japan, the former colonial power, to implement an intensive and regimented work culture.

“Actually, South Korea at that time was poorer than North Korea, so people believed that we should catch up with North Korea, and that was achieved in the early 1970s,” Prof. Park says, adding that a similar mentality pushed people to strive to catch up with Japan.

A culture of striving continues to guide society, he says.

“Every day, most parents say to their sons or daughters that, first of all, if they are students, ‘study hard’ — if they are more than 20, ‘please work hard.’ So that’s kind of Koreans’ habit still. They believe working hard is a way to live better.”

Signs of change

Albeit slowly, conditions are changing, as well as expectations. While still near the top of the global rankings, South Koreans today on average work about 350 fewer hours a year than they did in 2000.

Legislation to abolish the six-day work week at many companies came into effect in 2004. Successive governments have recognized the need to reduce work hours, for both economic and social reasons, although some businesses, as well as workers who want overtime pay, have opposed such moves.

Park says the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which led to unprecedented mass layoffs, effectively upended many Koreans’ expectations of a job for life. Some began to prize their leisure time and develop interests outside the workplace.

But for some Koreans, change can’t come fast enough. Fed up with negative experiences of the workplace and job market in her country, Lee moved to San Francisco in July to study English and plans to pursue a career in software development abroad.

“Korean society is rampant with a culture of poor workplaces,” she says.

[The Christian Science Monitor] On first trip to Asia, Pope Francis greets a growing congregation

The following article was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor. — John. 

At South Korea’s most prominent cathedral, worshippers must come early. Like they do every week, Catholics attending midday mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Sunday waited in long lines outside in the hope of getting a seat.

While large attendance is the norm at the church located in one of the capital’s busiest shopping areas, Sunday’s sermon held special significance ahead of Pope Francis’ visit. He arrives here Thursday for a five day visit, his first trip to Asia as pontiff.

The visit highlights the remarkable growth of the Roman Catholic Church in a country that has defied international trends by simultaneously becoming more wealthy and more religious. Since the last visit of a pope to South Korea in 1989, the number of Catholics here has almost tripled, rising to more than 10 percent of the population and a third of all Christians.

Recommended: How much do you know about the Catholic Church? Take our quiz!

“This visit by his Holiness to Korea has a very special meaning for us,” Father Luke Koh Chan-keun told the congregation, which included dozens of worshippers who stood due to a lack of seats. “He is coming to … pray for forgiveness and reconciliation between the divided people of South andNorth Korea. We hope that the Korean church can become the center of Asia through his visit.”

Social causes appeal  

Part of the resilience of the Catholic Church in South Korea compared to Protestant churches that have seen declines in followers here is due to its active involvement in largely liberal social causes, according to some observers.

From being heavily involved in the pro-democracy movement in the 1970s and 80s, Catholic priests and laity have in recent years taken positions on more contentious issues. Dozens of Korean Jesuits and local priests and nuns have been arrested since 2011 in protests against the construction of a naval base on the popular tourist draw Jeju Island. Priests also protested the erection of high voltage power lines in Miryang, a small city in the southeast of the country.

“Those social activities, movements make ordinary people regard Catholicism, generally speaking, as kind of a religion they can count on, or they can trust,” says Hwang Kyung-hoon, the head of the Center for Asian Theology Solidarity at the Woori Theology Institute in Seoul.

It is also clear that many Koreans are impressed by Pope Francis’ image as a humble pontiff uninterested in the pomp of the office.

“He is humble and always trying to be with the people who really need some help,” says Hwang Eun-heay, a young hospital worker in Seoul who plans to watch the main events online.

While Protestantism is still the dominant Christian religion in Korea, it has failed to keep pace with the Catholic Church’s rise. Its proportion of followers fell by 1.5 percent between 1995 and 2005, and various denominations have been plagued by scandals in recent years. Most recently, Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the founder of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, believed to have the world’s largest congregation, was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling church funds.

High expectations 

Such goodwill and admiration mean that Pope Francis’ visit, timed to coincide with World Youth Day, also comes burdened with heavy expectations. The Catholic and broader Christian community hope his presence can provide solace to a society grappling with income inequality, relations with North Korea, and the lingering trauma of April’s Sewol ferry disaster that killed hundreds of schoolchildren.

After meeting President Park Geun-hye on Thursday, Pope Francis is set to meet survivors of the Sewol and families of the victims at a mass in Daejeon, a city some 80 miles south of Seoul, on Friday. On his final day on Monday, he will dedicate mass at Myeongdong Cathedral to peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas.

“The Pope’s visit is a visit for peace in our country, and because Korean society these days is a little disordered, it would be a great help if Korean society could come together,” says Kim Ji-seong, a health worker who attended Sunday’s midday Mass in Myeongdong.

Catholicism is widely considered to have had its formal start on the Korean Peninsula in 1784, with the establishment of a prayer house by Yi Sung-hun, a Korean baptized in Beijing who formed his community in Pyongyang. An estimated 10,000 Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Confucian authorities of the day, a chapter that will be marked by Pope Francis on Saturday when he beautifies 124 martyrs.

Protests 

Amid such anticipation, controversy and signs of unmet expectations have already emerged before the pontiff has stepped foot in the country.

Some families of the victims of the Sewol and their supporters, who have been on hunger strike for the passage of a special law to investigate the disaster, have vowed to continue their protest at Gwanghwamun Square, the site of Saturday’s beatification ceremony.

For others such as the young hospital worker Hwang, consoling words alone might just be enough.

“I just hope that he can console the people who are suffering and fighting for what’s right,” she says. “I also want his love, kindness and braveness to affect people so they can do what’s right and gain the courage to say the right thing out loud.”

[The Chrtian Science Monitor] Why South Koreans are skeptical over mysterious death of fugitive ferry owner

The following article was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor. — John 

South Korean police ended an unprecedented manhunt Tuesday without a live suspect, but with what they said was the body of the wealthy businessman wanted for months over the Sewol ferry disaster.

The answer to the mystery of Yoo Byung-eun’s whereabouts might have been expected to bring a measure of closure to a nation gripped by anger, disillusionment, and grief. Mr. Yoo is the alleged owner of the ferry that sank on April 16 with the loss of nearly 300 people, mostly high school students. Instead, the body’s identification has unleashed skepticism and full-blown conspiracy theories from a public whose faith in public institutions was badly shaken by the disaster.

Police told local media Tuesday that the heavily decomposed body of Yoo, who had eluded arrest since May, had been identified through DNA and fingerprint testing after it was first discovered in a plum field on June 12 in Suncheon, some 250 miles south of Seoul. Local reports suggested that the body had been initially mistaken for a homeless person. They also said police did not suspect foul play in Yoo’s death.

Some South Koreans saw the news of the body’s discovery as an attempt to direct attention away from a recent government bill to allow hospitals engage in greater profit-making activities, a controversial move in a country with a system of universal health insurance.

“They didn’t identify the body in a timely manner despite finding it weeks ago. Then, they suddenly presented the finding at this important time,” says Song Yu-jin, an office worker in Seoul.

Political consequences 

The drawn-out manhunt had been a growing source of embarrassment for President Park Geun-hye, whose reputation took a hit after an accident that, together with the rescue efforts, were seen as a national shame. Her Gallup poll approval rating hit a record low of 40 percent in early July, after two failed attempts to replace her prime minister.

“I think the government as a whole, the public sector as a whole, is losing the trust of people, especially since the Sewol accident this spring,” says Jung Yong-duck, a professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

Conspiracy theories about major events are not uncommon in South Korea. The sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan in 2010 sparked speculation of a government cover-up despite an international investigation concluding that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the vessel.

Yoo allegedly controlled Cheonghaejin Marine Corp., the company which owned the ferry, and was the co-founder of the evangelical Salvation Sect. The authorities’ handling of his body has provided further ammunition for skeptics. While police told local media they had handed over the body to the National Forensic Service shortly after it was discovered, citizens and media questioned the delay in confirming its identity and whether the police and prosecution had properly shared information.

“In this case, we have seen a failure of cooperation among government institutions, between the police department and the prosecutors’ office. They have been competing with each other to get investigative rights, especially the police department wants to have some sort of investigation right,” says Yang Seung-ham, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, referencing a long drawn-out dispute between police and prosecutors.

While most Koreans will believe the official narrative of Yoo’s death, Mr. Yang says, the government still suffers from a trust deficit over its handling of the Sewol disaster.

“They have to say the truth about this case,” he says. “Some people must have to take their responsibility and then the government, the presidential office, must show some sort of communication with the public about the malfunctioning government system.”

The crumbling myth of Korean innocence about racism

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea. The Kookmin Ilbo later quoted part of the column in a story published on Sept. 11, 2014 .

Foreigners living in Korea are prone to forget just how much of a bubble they live in. What exercises Americans, Canadians and Brits away from home may be of little or no interest to Koreans.

So it’s been with a recent skit on the hugely popular Gag Concert that many expatriates have decried as demeaning to Africans and black people generally.

In the sketch, Korean comedienne Heo An-na dons full-body black makeup, over-sized fake teeth and a leopard-print loincloth to play an African tribeswoman in a tumultuous relationship with a Korean man.

Completing the image of a savage African, Heo’s character at one point becomes so emotional that she resorts to animalistic grunting and beating her chest.

A video of the sketch soon spread among resident foreigners on SNS, sparking both anger and dismay. Many wondered out loud how the state broadcaster in such an ostensibly modern country could air such racially offensive material. Their outrage in particular focused on the use of “blackface,” referring to the use of makeup to imitate black people, which has become largely taboo in the United States in particular due to its association with the mistreatment of black Americans.

But what was the reaction in the Korean media and webosphere? Silence. This writer could not find a single article, blog post or comment thread even acknowledging that such race-based mockery might be controversial, never mind objectionable.

Whenever such examples of Koreans apparently lacking racial sensitivity arise, the common justification, made by both locals and many foreigners, is that Koreans either mean no harm or don’t know any better. Indeed, while many foreigners attacked the Gag Concert skit, lots of others equivocated that Korea does not share the same racial history as the U.S. or other Western countries, or that most Koreans don’t know racial stereotypes are offensive, having been only so recently exposed to foreigners.

The implicit suggestion is that Koreans can’t be held to the same standards as Westerners because, unlike Westerners, their intentions are most likely benign. The idea that Koreans are a particularly innocent and moral people is held with pride by some Koreans, and all too often indulged by foreigners, some of whom are likely to squirm at the thought of judging people of a different race and culture.

Recently, on a trip to Busan, I had an alcohol-fuelled conversation with a group of four 20-something Koreans that revealed this mash of myopia and a sense of moral superiority. Without exception, each insisted that there is little racism in Korea. Not only that, they said, racism is much worse in Western countries. I challenged the first claim, listing various examples of racism and xenophobia I’d witnessed personally, as well as the experiences of other foreigners documented in the media and elsewhere. To the second point, I said that trumpeting a supposed lack of racism in a country with so few foreigners was almost meaningless because a large number of racist incidents would first require a relatively large number of foreigners. It would be like a boss congratulating himself on the lack of sexism in an office with no female employees.

The special pleading and excuse-making made by, and on behalf of, Koreans might be understandable if Korea were simply a politically incorrect place that slaughtered sacred cows without prejudice.

Even if one ultimately objects to such an environment, there is at least an appealing consistency and rebellious mischievousness in declaring that humor has no limits, even when it comes to race. After all, lots of great humor has offended somebody, somewhere.

But Korea is not such a place. Korean society, media and officialdom often express outrage over perceived slights against their country and people.

And it goes beyond historical grievances and territorial disputes with Japan. In fact, the Korean media has demonstrated plenty of familiarity with the pitfalls of racial caricatures and stereotypes – that is, when it has been Koreans who have been the victims. When, in 2012, a foreign Hollister model on assignment in Korea uploaded a photo of himself making a squinty-eyed pose to appear East Asian, it generated dozens of articles in the local media and outraged comment online. Just this May, Jorge Cantu, a third baseman for the Doosan Bears from Mexico, sparked a flurry of critical media coverage when he retweeted an image joking about how East Asians supposedly all look alike. During the World Cup, meanwhile, one Seoul newspaper reported that Russian fans had mocked Koreans by pretending to have slanted eyes during the game between the two countries. Earlier this month, a social media-driven news site reported that K-pop star G-Dragon had been heckled with the insult “ching chong” by a member of the public outside a fashion event in Paris.

The examples go on and on. Simply put, pleading ignorance about racial sensitivity looks ever more dishonest and self-serving.

As an outsider, it isn’t long before you become aware of the deep sense of victim hood rooted in Korea’s national character, most often manifest in dealings with larger and more powerful countries, be it in diplomacy, business or sports. Crucially, being a victim means never having to admit fault. Perhaps this is why Africans can be mocked on national television without a whisper of protest, while jokes at the expense of Koreans cause controversy.

The choice for Korean society, then, seems clear: embrace a modest degree of racial sensitivity, or don’t and duly renounce the right to complain when Koreans become the butt of jokes themselves.

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.”