[Christian Science Monitor] As Asian Games kick off, will North Korea flip its way into S. Korean hearts?

There is little to distinguish the North Korean delegation’s living quarters from among the two-dozen apartment blocks that make up the athletes’ village of the Asian Games opening this week in South Korea.

Hanging from the balconies of one tower, nine national flags provide the only obvious sign of Pyongyang’s participation in Asia’s biggest sporting event.

For many South Koreans, the competition that kicks off Friday is more than a mere sporting event. It doubles as the latest in a long list of attempts at engagement with the North, and has been a flashpoint for tension over how to best interact with the South’s oft-unruly neighbor.

“I really do hope [the Games are reconciliatory], but there is still a long way to go” says Ahn Sehyun, a professor of international relations at the University of Seoul, who sees the competition as a “stepping stone” to reinitiating talks between both sides.

‘We are one nation’

The North Koreans share their building with the delegation from China, Pyongyang’s only major ally. The South Koreans, divided from their countrymen in the North for more than 60 years, are accommodated in a separate building a short walk away.

Security has been tight since the first batch of North Koreans arrived last week under police escort from Incheon International Airport, where they were reportedly greeted with cheers of “We are one nation!” by a small group of South Koreans. An armored personnel carrier, SWAT officers, and metal detectors guard the entrance to the compound, restricting access inside. A second segment of the North Korean delegation, dressed in blue and white with the national flag on their lapels, was photographed in the local media this week flanked by security after they arrived.

Who pays for North Korea?

Just getting the North Koreans to the Games was a controversial task. In July, negotiations on the size and cost of hosting the North’s delegation broke down, leaving its participation in doubt.

Seoul eventually agreed to pay a portion of the 273-member delegation’s stay, declining to reveal the amount until after the event. At the last Asian Games in the country, held in 2002 under a liberal administration, South Korea paid the majority of the costs of North Korea’s participation.

Seoul’s conservative Park Geun-hye government, whose “trustpolitik” policy calls for trust-building with North Korea through mutual cooperation, may have an additional motivation for being determined to see its neighbor at the games, says Victor Cha, the top North Korean advisor to former US President George W. Bush and author of Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia.

“The administration… wants to look like they are trying, at least, [and] doesn’t want to be blamed for excluding North Korea. There is always a good 25 percent of the South Korean electorate that views North Korea in sort of a more positive light,” he says.

Fundamental split

But North Korea’s participation has also generated controversy south of the border, highlighting the fundamental split in domestic politics between liberals who tend to be enthusiastic toward engagement and conservatives who remain guarded.

One controversy centered around North Korea’s cheerleaders – who won devoted fans in the South during the 2002 Games. Last month, Pyongyang reversed an earlier pledge to send cheerleaders, causing the Unification Ministry to send assurances that the cheerleaders were still welcome.

Even as the Unification Ministry insisted last month that North Korea’s cheerleaders would be received enthusiastically if they came, Seoul’s Defense Ministry described their appearance as a “shell” to conceal their true propaganda purpose.

Earlier this month, meanwhile, the national flags of the 45 participating countries were removed from the streets of Incheon following protests about the display of the North Korean flag.

“North Korea has an ulterior agenda for wanting to participate in the Asian Games,” says Song Dae-sung, the president of the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul that specializes in security and regional affairs.

“The current image of Kim Jong-un has been the very negative one of being an authoritarian military dictatorship. North Korea is going to promote its fake, attractive image through its participation in the Games, hiding its original bad image.”

Aside from cynicism about North Korea’s true motives, some observers simply question the extent to which a sporting event can affect such an uneasy and complicated relationship between countries.

Effective sports diplomacy usually happens in the context of wider engagement, such as the “ping pong diplomacy” of the 1970s that marked a thaw in between the United States and China, says Mr. Cha.

“The problem, I think, in North-South [relations] right now is there isn’t a lot going on, and you just have this Asian Games thing there with the hope that it will somehow generate some sort of diplomat breakthrough. Unfortunately, the reality is the events don’t generate diplomatic breakthroughs if there is no prior undercurrent of policy sort of moving in that direction.”

“The problem, I think, in North-South [relations] right now is there isn’t a lot going on, and you just have this Asian Games thing there with the hope that it will somehow generate some sort of diplomat breakthrough. Unfortunately, the reality is the events don’t generate diplomatic breakthroughs if there is no prior undercurrent of policy sort of moving in that direction.”

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Pope’s Korea visit holds lessons for West’s struggling church

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

Judging by the ecstatic reaction to his visit that ended Monday, Pope Francis has no shortage of admirers in South Korea. Up to one million people reportedly crowded into Gwanghwamun for Saturday’s Mass to beautify 124 Korean martyrs, one of the highlights of the visit. The pontiff’s popularity, which is replicated right around world, is understandable. In his public pronouncements, Francis has tended to emphasis uncontentious Christians principals, such as charity and compassion. By appearing to strike a less judgmental tone than his predecessors, he has even managed to attract the admiration of many liberal non-believers normally disdainful of organized religion. In South Korea, the interest in and enthusiasm for his visit clearly extended well beyond the devotedly Catholic.

While respect for the current pontiff may be widespread across different countries, however, Korea’s relationship with the Catholic Church is far from typical. It is a cliche among those familiar with the country to say that Korea is a land of contradictions. But, once again, this characterization is apt in describing Korea’s relationship with Catholicism and religion generally. By Western standards, Korea has a high number of citizens who profess no religion at all. At the last census in 2005, almost half of South Koreans said they did not belong to any religion, a greater portion than in the U.S., UK and France.

At the same, the pope’s first trip to Asia was to country where Catholicism is on the ascent, albeit from a modest base (about 10 percent of the population is Catholic.) At a time of declining religiosity across the developed world, the church in Korea has managed to consistently grow its flock. The number of Catholics has almost tripled since the mid-80s. And the trend shows little sign of receding. The number of Catholics and new ordinations in the country both grew last year, according to the church authorities.

In the UK, by contrast, the number of ordinations last year was just a tenth of the figure in 1965. In my own country, Ireland, the shortage of vocations to the priesthood is such that the Association of Catholic Priests has called for the church to allow women and married priests, which would be a break from more than 2,000 years of tradition.

“The reality is that in 20 years there will be few priests in Ireland and those that are still standing will be mainly in their 70s,” wrote one Irish priest in an article posted on the association’s website in June.

Along with the almost inevitable secularization that accompanies increased wealth, Ireland’s church has had to grapple with the fallout of child sex abuse scandals involving members of the clergy. Compounding the public’s revulsion and disillusionment, the church authorities were found to have covered up numerous such crimes against children.

It is not difficult to identity reasons for the decline of the church in Ireland or other Western countries. The more intriguing question is: what makes Korea, a rich, modern country, so different from its peers across the developed world?

One possible explanation for the church’s enduring popularity, say some experts, is its role in political and social activism.

“Several factors lie behind the rapid growth of the Catholic Church in Korea in recent decades: for example, its active support of the pro-democracy movement in the South in the 1970s and 80s, enabling it to win the hearts and minds of a great many Koreans, especially of the intelligentsia,” Timothy Lee, a professor at Brite Divinity School in Texas, told me as I was researching an article on the pope’s visit.

Professor Lee further speculated that the church had benefited from “having kept itself free from major scandals, especially of sexual and financial kinds; (and) its respectful attitude toward other religions, especially Confucianism and Buddhism.”

Of course, activism is a double edged sword. A cause that impresses one person might just as easily alienate another. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the church in Korea has done something right in terms of maintaining its relevance for a wealthy and educated citizenry.

Whatever the reason for the growth of Catholicism, Korea surely offers lessons for church authorities anywhere the faith is in decline. Whether in Dublin or Detroit, Catholic leaders hoping to revive the fortunes of the church could do worse than look to their counterparts in Northeast Asia.

[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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?’”