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?’”

 

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Expats’ place in Korean society and their response to claims of sexual abuse

The following op-ed was originally written for translation for Newsweek Korea. — John.

On January 6, it was reported in the Cambodia press that a former native English teacher in Korea had been arrested in the country on charges of paying a 14-year-old boy for sex. Before long, rumors surfaced online about the Canadian’s conduct with minors during his decade living in Korea. My curiosity piqued, I decided to look into the validity of these claims. As I dug into the speculation over the course of a month, it became clear that it was more than idle gossip: an overwhelming trail of evidence implicated the former expat here in sexual contact with underage boys. Other compelling evidence suggested failures by the police and acquaintances to act on credible suspicions against the individual.

On strict condition of anonymity, two former close friends of the Canadian, formerly a minor celebrity on Korean television, revealed that he had admitted to them to being arrested in Seoul in 2007 on suspicion of fondling a boy. Afraid of bringing shame on the family, the parents of the alleged victim declined to press charges, the sources said. More damning still was a recording of a conversation provided by one source, in which he confronted the Canadian about his sexual activities with minors. In the 40-minute recording, the former Seoul resident could be heard admitting to sex acts with minors in Korea and the United States.

Perhaps most concerning of all was the picture of inaction and apathy — among both acquaintances of the former expat and the authorities — painted by people close to the story. It is true that the law at the time would have prevented charges from being brought against the Canadian for the alleged incident in 2007 without a parental complaint. Nevertheless, additional evidence secured in the years after his arrest such as the recording was not taken seriously by the authorities, according to my interviews. One fellow foreign English teacher, who knew of the compromising recording, claimed to have contacted the police, only to be put on hold and “hear cops laughing about who was going to have to talk to the foreigner.” Disheartened by their lack of action, he and some fellow like-minded foreigners decided to bring their concerns to the Canadian embassy in Seoul.

He said they were told that it was not something they could deal with, a claim that would appear to be accurate at least in so far as not having the authority to investigate or prosecute a criminal case. The question of whether diplomatic pressure could have been put on the Korean authorities is more difficult to brush off. Moreover, Canadian law actually allows for prosecution of citizens involved in sexual activity with minors abroad, even if such activity is legal in the country in which it takes place. To this end, the Canadian government’s own website actually recommends that people with suspicions about Canadians abroad contact their embassy with their concerns.

Another fellow English teacher eventually resorted to circulating an email to numerous recruiters of English teachers in which he labeled the Canadian unfit to teach children and implored potential employers to give him wide berth. The Canadian left Korea about a year later to teach in Thailand, where he had been residing until his arrest while on holiday in Cambodia. All of these developments, backed by multiple sources, are outlined in detail in my long article published in expat magazine Groove Korea on January 28.

Apart from the specifics of the case, the allegations raise serious concerns about procedures to deal with suspected sex offenders generally. First, there are obvious questions for the police, which, it is claimed, were far from receptive to well-founded concerns about a teacher’s interactions with minors. Further, my attempts to confirm the suspect’s arrest in Korea with the police produced a troubling response: while, perhaps predictably, no confirmation could be provided on privacy grounds, the police were unsure if such a record would even exist.

Two reasons were given for why there might not be any file on the arrest: the police database had been changed in recent years, and records that old were generally not kept anyway. It seems astonishing that it could be impossible to verify the arrest of a suspected child sex offender just seven years ago. While it cannot be said with certainty that no file exists as the police simply refused to check, their own comments hint at major weaknesses in the database.

The second area of concern regards the connection that foreigners, in this case some teachers from Western countries, have to their host society. Foreigners living in Korea often remark that they are perpetual outsiders. The case above goes some way to suggest that this is the case, though not necessarily because of their host nation alone. On one hand, it is claimed, numerous foreigners aware of the allegations against a teacher in their midst were hesitant to act. It is not certain why this might be the case, but a plausible reason might be concerns that such impropriety would negatively impact the image of foreigners in Korea. Such fears were expressed to me on several occasions when I discussed the story with other foreigners. One foreigner, himself a journalist with one of the local English-language newspapers, very publicly threatened violence against me on social media for supposedly providing another reason for foreigners “to be ostracized and given the short shaft.” Such an attitude suggests a detachment from the wider community, with greater concern given to the potential fallout for a minority of foreigners than the safety of any number of Korean minors. On the other side of the cultural divide, the alleged response of the police equally reinforced the status of foreigners as outsiders. Credible reports from foreigners were seemingly not to be taken seriously. The very idea of a foreigner contacting the police was worthy of laughter.

Ultimately, a situation where foreigners remain at the periphery of Korean society is in the interest of neither Koreans nor foreigners. More than that, it can literally be dangerous.

Former teacher accused of sex with Cambodian minor was arrested in Korea, say former friends

This exclusive originally appeared in Groove Magazine. — John

A former native English teacher in Korea currently facing charges of paying a 14-year-old boy for sex in Cambodia was previously arrested in Seoul on suspicion of fondling a boy and had a history of sexual activity with minors, according to former friends and a recorded conversation.

Two former close friends of Canadian national Vadim Scott told Groove Korea that the suspect told them he had been arrested in Seoul in 2007, but was released after the parents declined to press charges. The law on sex crimes did not allow for prosecution without the complaint of the victim or their family until it was amended last year.

Scott, once a well-known native English teacher who appeared on more than a dozen episodes of the popular Korean television show “Surprise,” was arrested on Jan. 5 in Battambang, northwestern Cambodia, for allegedly having sex with a minor, The Phnom Penh Post reported. He is currently awaiting trial.

The sources, a former Canadian expat and an American currently teaching English in Seoul, claim that Scott revealed he was arrested at his apartment in Haebangchon, Yongsan district, in spring 2007 for molesting a minor after inviting two boys to his home. The exact nature of the alleged assault and age of the victim is unclear.

The Canadian source, who performed with the suspect on the live music scene here for several years, provided Groove Korea with a recording of a conversation in which he confronts Scott about the incident in Haebangchon and other behavior, and demands that he seek treatment. Two other former acquaintances separately identified the voice on the recording as belonging to Scott.

In the 40-minute-long recording, Scott claims that he invited the two boys to his house out of sympathy after he found them crying on the street because their father beat them. Insisting there had been no inappropriate contact at first, he claims they later returned to his house on their own accord.

“I had a minor in my bed who was not appropriately…who was too close to me, fair enough,” Scott says.

At several points in the recording, Scott quibbles with the use of terms such as “molesting,” “abuse” and “children,” claiming to have never engaged in sexual activity with anyone under 15. Challenging this claim, his friend responds that Scott had previously told a mutual friend that he had never been involved with anyone under 13. The age of consent in Korea is 13.

When his friend, referring to Scott repeatedly by name, defines “minors” as individuals under 18, Scott replies, “Yeah, I’ve been with minors.”

Later in the conversation, Scott denies any contact with underage individuals on a recent trip to Thailand, but later alludes to sexual contact with minors in Florida and acknowledges past possession of “questionable” pornography.

Scott, who insists he is “not hurting anyone right now” but had in the past, also complains of the difficulty of finding an English-speaking counselor in Korea and previously lacking the money to pay for one.

The former music partner of the suspect said he made the recording after he learned of his arrest and stumbled upon child pornography on his computer.

“I couldn’t sleep properly for a long time. ‘Was I doing enough?’ I wondered. The community was split, some not wanting to believe, some knew but chose to ignore his behavior,” he told Groove Korea via email on condition of anonymity.

He said he decided with several other foreign teachers to inform the Canadian Embassy in Seoul of the audio file and other allegations after failed attempts to get the police involved.

Louis Savoy, one of the group involved who is currently based in Turkey, spoke on the record about visiting the embassy after calling the police, who had him “put on hold while I overheard cops laughing about who was going to have to talk with the foreigner.”

“I thought if the embassy contacted the police on behalf of my complaint, more could get done. I prepared my statement, went to the Canadian Embassy and spoke with a consular officer who was typically Canadian — cordial, reasonable, and ready to excuse her inaction,” Savoy said.

“I explained that we had an incriminating recording, that Vadim was a Canadian citizen, that police weren’t listening to me. She told me this was not the type of thing the embassy dealt with. I should have asked her to give me a maple-leaf button. I remember feeling that she seemed concerned but that she wouldn’t help me, and in a sense, the system is designed against involvement.”

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An official at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul told Groove Korea she was unaware of the case, but “would not be in a position to release information” regardless. When asked how the embassy would generally handle such a complaint, she said the Canadian government in Ottawa would likely have to be consulted for instruction.

Savoy added that the allegations against Vadim were widely known among foreigners in Haebangchon.

“People talked indignantly but did nothing. I’m excluding a few people from this, including myself as well as anyone else who actually reacted towards a solution, but the general response seemed to be that the shock was public property while justice was an unrelated taboo,” he said in an email.

The widely reported death of English teacher William Kapoun in a house fire in Haebangchon in March 2008 later directed attention away from the issue within the community, he added.

Meanwhile, the second source claiming that Scott confessed to his arrest provided Groove Korea with a photo he took of Scott appearing to inappropriately grab a boy he had acted with in 2011. The American subsequently sent the photo, taken on a bus, to multiple recruiters for English teachers in Korea in March 2011, along with an email saying that he was unfit to teach children.

Scott left Korea about a year later in early 2012 and began teaching English in Thailand, where he had been living up until his arrest in Cambodia.

Additional email correspondence between Scott and the American indicates that the latter had pleaded with Scott to give up teaching and undergo counseling for his “psychological problem.”

“You should still not teach children. Period,” he wrote in one email, dated April 2011, going on to explain that he could no longer associate with Scott. The email also makes repeated references to his alleged inappropriate behavior with minors.

The Canadian source, who first met Scott in Canada in 2001, told Groove he had known his former friend and music partner for years before he suspected anything.

“At the time he claimed to enjoy being a ‘big brother’ type and I had no reason to doubt this. He was very well liked by the students he taught,” he said, adding that an incident in which Scott allegedly invited two young teens to sing karaoke while they were on vacation in Vietnam was his first warning sign.

Repeated attempts by Groove to confirm Scott’s arrest were denied by police at Yongsan on privacy grounds. One officer at Yongsan responded with incredulity when asked if there was a record of Scott’s arrest.

“There are many foreign people’s cases around here in Yongsan district. Then, how can we collect and recognize a case even from the year 2007? What you are trying to get does not make sense, actually. Yes, we don’t have that record! How could you find out about the record that we don’t know even exists?” he said.

“Even if the case was covered, it is too old and we normally don’t keep data that old. So, it’s strange that you want to find and access the report of whatever case it is.”

Another police officer at Yongsan said it was possible no record of the arrest exists because the police database was changed several years ago.

A written request for comment by Scott’s legal representative, Em Savann, was not returned after making contact by phone. Attempts to contact Scott directly by email were unsuccessful.

The photo above was reportedly distributed by Cambodian police. John Power is a journalist in Seoul. He can be contacted at johnpowermedia@gmail.com. His website is johnfrancispower.com.