Saturday, October 18, 2014

Korea's Labor Productivity, and How to Interpret Data About Korea

An article titled Seven Reasons Why Korea Has the Worst Productivity in the OECD, from March 2014, has been recently making rounds in TK's Facebook feed again. It was a dumb article at the time of the publication, and it remains dumb today. Regardless, the article continues to receive approving reactions--which merits pointing out exactly what is dumb about this article.

First, the article itself. The author Michael Kocken, writing for Business Korea magazine, begins with this:
Korea was recently named the worst place for worker productivity in the OECD, which was featured in a recent article by this magazine. This news is not surprising for any professional previously or currently working in Korea, as the notorious overtime hours coupled with years of low growth have been a widely-discussed issue over the past few years.
Then the article makes the familiar, banal complaints about Korea's corporate culture:  Korea's corporate structure is too rigid and hierarchical; there is no honest and direct communication; worker distraction from the Internet and smartphones; hungover workers, valuing form over substance, new workers who are poorly equipped, and the need to put in useless "face time."

Typical office scene in Korea. Is this the home of low productivity?

What's dumb about this article? 

First, the article's starting premise is flatly untrue. Korea's labor productivity was not the worst in the OECD. Korea's labor productivity per worker in 2012 (which was the most recent data available as of the article's writing) was at 23rd place among the 34 OECD member states. Sure, 23 out of 34 is still in the lower range. But it is a far cry from being at the worst place.

But let's be generous and make an ample allowance between the bottom third and the rock bottom. After all, it would be good for Korea to aspire to be on the above-average side of the OECD. However, even this allowance cannot save this article. The main problem with the article is that the author does not seem to understand what "labor productivity" means. This is apparent from the second sentence of the article's opening paragraph, which refers to Korea's long overtime hours. Even setting aside the factual inaccuracy that TK noted earlier, this is a strange statement.

Why is it strange? Because OECD measures labor productivity by, essentially, dividing "output" by number of hours worked. (The precise methodology is somewhat more complicated, especially on how one defines "output." If you are interested in the actual methodology, you can find it here.) This necessarily means that the longer one works, the lower the labor productivity, because if you increase the denominator while holding the numerator at the same level, the result is always a smaller number. In other words, Korea's labor productivity is low because of long overtime hours, not despite the overtime, as Kocken appears to imply.

This leads us to the most important lesson:  what OECD means by "labor productivity" is not what an ordinary person would think. When OECD states Korea has low labor productivity, the word "productivity" is not being used in the same manner in which regular people talk about being "productive at work." But the latter is exactly how the author Michael Kocken uses the term "productivity." Then the article simply runs with the incorrect understanding of the term, and make the trite, stereotypical complaints about Korea's corporate culture.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Korea and the Great War

Dear Korean,

Since the centennial anniversary of the First World War (1914-2014) is upon us, it would be worthwhile to ask: (1) How did the First World War affect Korea? (2) Is the "War to End All Wars" studied in any detail by Korean students today?


For the centennial anniversary of World War I, TK recommends everyone to visit Kansas City, Missouri, a deeply underrated city in his opinion. There, after having some of the world's finest barbecue, visit the National World War I Museum, which houses a relatively small but all-around-awesome collection related to the Great War. Fans of history and military equipment can easily spend an entire day there. TK had a wonderful time visiting.

National World War I Museum at Kansas City

But enough gratuitous plugging. How did the First World War affect Korea? Short answer:  it didn't. Speaking of World War I is a bit like speaking of the World Series--we all know what the terms are trying to say, but they do not really mean what they say. The supposed "World" War barely grazed East Asia. Sure, Australia and New Zealand engaged in some land battles in the then-German Samoa, and the Japanese laid siege to the German base in Tsingtao, China. (Fortunately, the Germans stuck around just long enough to teach the locals how to make proper beer.) But in East Asia, World War I was never an all-out war that affected the daily lives of most people. This was true in Korea as well.

The aftermath of World War I, however, did play a significant role in Korea. On January 8,1918, toward the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson gave the famous Fourteen Points speech, in which he advocated for (among other things) national self-determination, i.e. the right of the colonized people to free themselves from imperialism and form their own national government. 

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, October 06, 2014

50 Most Influential K-pop Artists: 9. Shin Hae-cheol

[Series Index]

9. Shin Hae-cheol [신해철]

Also known as:  Shin Hae-chul; Crom

Years of Activity: 1989-present 


As vocal/keyboard of Muhan'gwedo [무한궤도]
When Our Lives Come to End [우리의 삶이 끝나갈 때] (1989)

As a solo artist
Shin Hae-cheol [신해철 1집] (1990)
Myself (1991)
Crom's Techno Works (1998)
Monocrom (1999)
The Songs for the One (2007)
Reboot Myself Part 1 (2014)

As vocal/keyboard of N.Ex.T
Home (1992)
The Return of N.Ex.T Part 1: The Being (1994)
The Return of N.Ex.T Part 2 (1996)
Lazenca: a Space Rock Opera (1997)
The Return of N.Ex. T Part III (2004)
Re:Game (2006)
666 Trilogy Part 1 (2008)

As a member of NoDance
Golden Hits (1996)

As a member of Wittgenstein
Theatre Wittgenstein (2000)

Representative Song:  To You [그대에게] from When Our Lives Come to End

To You

숨가쁘게 살아가는 순간 속에도
Even in the hectic living moments
우린 서로 이렇게 아쉬워하는 걸
We still want each other more
아직 내게 남아있는 많은 날들을
The many days that I still have left
그대와 둘이서 나누고 싶어요
I wish to share them with you

내가 사랑한 그 모든 것을 다 잃는다 해도
Even if I lose everything I have loved
그대를 포기할 수 없어요
I cannot let you go
이 세상 어느 곳에서도
No matter where in the world
나는 그대 숨결을 느낄 수 있어요
I can feel your breath
내 삶이 끝나는 날까지
Until the day my life ends
나는 언제나 그대 곁에 있겠어요
I will always be by your side

Translation notes:  "숨가쁘게 살아가는 순간" is weirdly difficult.

In 15 words or less:  The most significant Korean rock musician of the 1990s.

Maybe he should should be ranked higher because...  Both in terms of music and in terms of social participation, how many K-pop artists tried more different things than Shin did?

Maybe he should be ranked lower because...  How much direct influence did Shin have? How much in the current K-pop scene can be definitively traced back to Shin Hae-cheol, like the way in which one can definitively trace Korean hip hop back to Drunken Tiger?

Why is this artist important?
As we climb higher into the rarefied heights of Korean pop music history, a concise statement of an artist's importance is approaching ever closer to impossible. One could easily write a book about Shin Hae-cheol's career; unfortunately, we can only spare a few paragraphs here.

From the beginning, Shin Hae-cheol's musical career portended a daring, experimental musical vision. Shin debuted with his band Muhan'gwedo ("Infinite Track") on the Campus Song Festival, the scene-defining audition show at the time. The crackdown from Korea's dictatorship (which ended only a year before Shin Hae-cheol's debut) has neutered K-pop, making the saccharine and brain-dead soft rock (locally referred to as "ballads") the mainstream genre. But Muhan'gwedo would have none of it. Reversing the conventional pop progression that gradually built up to a climax, To You opens with a dramatic, synthesizer-induced flair and rushes full speed toward the finish line.

Shin Hae-cheol then debuted as a solo artist, engaging in a brief (and embarrassing-in-hindsight) stint of idol pop at the insistence of his record company. Then Shin finally found his musical homeland by forming N.Ex.T. (pronounced "next",) the most significant Korean rock band of the 1990s. Looking at the current K-pop scene in which idol pop has overrun the market, it is difficult to believe that a rock band like N.Ex.T. used to top the K-pop charts. But it is true. Led by Shin Hae-cheol, N.Ex.T stood firm on the foundation of progressive rock yet struck in all directions: heavy metal, thrash rock, electronica and Korean traditional music. Shin also put project albums as an individual (taking on a separate stage name of "Crom",) trying ever more daring sound and demanding the audience to simply get used to it.

But Shin Hae-cheol's musical achievement is only half of his story, as Shin is arguably one of the most socially active pop musician in K-pop history. Perhaps betraying his elite education (Shin attended Sogang University, one of Korea's top five colleges,) Shin maintained a sharp tongue that relentlessly criticized the Korean society's irrationality and hypocrisy as a proper rocker should. Shin Hae-cheol led the charge in the movement to repeal the Korean law that prohibited two people with the same last name from getting married. Shin was also the leader of the now-infamous concert in 2002, in which Psy (of the Gangnam Style fame) performed an anti-American rap number, to express his anger at the death of two young Korean girls who were run over and killed by an USFK armored car.

The best pop artists do not simply influence the artists who come after them; they change the society around them. By that measure, Shin Hae-cheol is about as influential as any in K-pop history.

Interesting trivia:  Shin Hae-cheol is often mistaken as being related to the legendary Shin Jung-hyeon [신중현], as the name of Shin Jung-hyeon's oldest son is Shin Dae-cheol, leader of the influential heavy metal band Sinawi. Shin Hae-cheol, however, bears no relation to Shin Jung-hyeon. Shin Hae-cheol is, however, a blood relative to a different K-pop legend: Shin is the second cousin of Seo Taiji. Reportedly, the two are close, often seen together fishing or skiing.

Further Listening:  A.D.D.a. from Reboot Myself Part 1, song recorded entirely as a one-man a capella.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Friday, September 05, 2014

Law and Economics of Korean Street Food

Dear Korean,

I am living in the southern part of South Korea. One of the things I love about Korea is the street vendors selling food. Do these street vendors get a license or do they just set up shop? Also the 'shops' tend to close in the summer. For instance, I love 붕어빵, but they only sell during the winter. Why? Meanwhile in Seoul the street meat people are out all year long, usually at night. Why do they wait to set up at night? Why isn't street meat seasonal?


Long before the American hipsters turned the food truck into a fad, Asians have figured out the romance associated with eating on a mobile platform.

Typical street cart food setup in Korea.

But behind the delicious, delicious hunger-inducing facade, the legality and economics of street vendors in Korea are pretty complex. Conclusion first: technically, one must obtain a license--which comes with regular health inspections--to open up a street cart. But it is fair to say that the law is observed only in select parts of Korean cities. Street carts in areas with huge foot traffic, and those that sell alcohol tend to invite more scrutiny, because of the various potential public hazard (mass-scale food poisoning, drunken brawls) they pose. In areas with regulation, the street cart owners often form an association to conduct their businesses in an orderly manner. There is even a secondary market in which the license-holders buy and sell the government licenses.

Outside of those areas, however, anything goes. This is directly related to the character of street vending as a business. Street vending has very low entry barrier. At the lowest possible end, one only needs a floor mat and some home-made gimbab [김밥] to be a street vendor. Even a more sophisticated street food vendor rarely requires more than a truck carrying a makeshift kitchen which, in the grand scheme of business, is not a huge capital investment. In fact, there are many businesses that rent out the street-vending equipment, and provide the mass-produced, half-cooked food that the street vendors only have to heat up and serve. (Oh come on, don't act all surprised.) This serves to further lower the entry barrier into the street-vending business by lowering the cost, and by eliminating the need to learn whatever technical expertise necessary to cook up the food.

Because the entry barrier is low, street vending is an attractive option for numerous Koreans, many of whom are economically down-and-out. This makes the government reluctant to crack down on them very strongly. The local government will act if a street vendor creates any issue that causes complaints from the residents. But most vendors are wise enough to fly under the radar, and the locals are generally happy to pick up some 붕어빵--a fish-shaped pastry with sweet red bean filling--on the way home from work. (In fact, the people who file the most complaints against street vendors are other street vendors, who frequently use government regulation as another weapon in turf war.)

Why are some types of street food seasonal, and others available year-around? Much of it has to do with the fluctuating demand. The demand for chicken on a stick, for example, remains the same year-around. But certain types of street food--like 붕어빵, roasted chestnuts, roasted sweet potatoes--are strongly associated with autumn and winter. Because there is more demand for such food during a limited time frame, many street vendors jump into selling these cold-weather snacks to make a quick profit, and exit the business when the weather warms up.

A world with little to no regulation, in which entrepreneurs freely enter and exit to precisely meet the dynamic demand of the market? Maybe Korean street cart market is the dream of the laissez-faire capitalist.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Friday, August 29, 2014

Divided Sports Loyalty?

Dear Korean,

I am Chinese American, immigrated at 4 years old. I identify very much as an American and while I want China to do well in competition, I will generally root for the USA over China head to head. A Korean American friend of mine shared this article, which I thought was very interesting. It advocates that Korean immigrants, as immigrants and people assimilating into American culture, have an obligation to not root against their new home country. What do you think?

John L.

Given the recent duel between Team Seoul and Team Chicago in the Little League Word Series, TK figured this would be a good topic to address. As immigrants, where should our sports loyalty lie?

Give it up for the good-lookin' World Champions.
The article that John L. shared outlines a common perspective. An excerpt:
When we as Korean Americans don Korea shirts and wave Korean flags during Korea-USA games, we are not choosing a team, we are choosing a nation. We are very deliberately and purposely choosing to support a foreign nation against the one we call our home and protector. It’s true that issues of identity are more complex – many of us feel just as much at home in Seoul as we do in San Diego or Daegu as in Dallas, but there are times when we cannot conveniently declare that we are “citizens of the world”, or “both Korean and American.” There are hard choices to be made.

It is ironic and inconsistent for us to complain of being seen as “perpetual foreigners” and having to struggle to be accepted as Americans, and then turn and root against America when the choice comes. And we cannot be truthful to ourselves and say that Korea’s games against the US are only sport when we consider Korea’s games against Japan as so much more. Culture plays an enormous role in setting the framework for people’s understanding of the world around them.

During World War II Asian Americans proudly and publicly made efforts to support America, despite the outrageous Executive Order 9066. Many, facing discrimination, wore buttons that read: “I am an American.” Still others, like Colonel Young Oak Kim, wore America’s uniform and served abroad. The Asian American 442nd Infantry continues to be the most highly-decorated military unit in the history of the American armed forces.
Undoubtedly, many people take this view, as many people take sports quite seriously--as does TK. So what does he think about this case of "divided loyalty"?

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, August 24, 2014

50 Most Influential K-pop Artists: 10. Drunken Tiger

[Series Index]

We are finally in the top ten countdown! Because the top ten musicians usually show a huge spectrum of music that is not sufficiently covered by a single "representative song," TK added a "Further Listening" section at the bottom to give additional examples of the artist's work.

10. Drunken Tiger

Years of Activity: 1999-present 

Tiger JK - rap (1999-present)
DJ Shine - rap (1999-2004)
Roscoe Umali - rap (2000-2003)
Micki Eyez - rap (2000-2003)
DJ James Jhig - rap (2000-2003)

Year of the Tiger (1999)
The Great Birth [위대한 탄생] (2000)
The Legend of (2001)
Roots [뿌리] (2003)
One is not a Lonely Word (2004)
1945 Liberation [1945 해방] (2005)
Sky is the Limit (2007)
Feel Ghood Muzik (2009)
Let's Live (The Cure) [살자 (The Cure)] (2013)

Representative Song:  You Think You Know Hip Hop? [너희가 힙합을 아느냐] from Year of the Tiger

(Note:  Lines in blue is in English in the original song.)

너희가 힙합을 아느냐
You Think You Know Hip Hop?

음악 같지 않은 음악을 이젠 모두 다 집어치워 버려야해
Music that is not worth being called "music" has to be all scrapped
우리가 너희들 모두의 귀를 확실하게 바꿔줄께 기다려
We will change all of your ears, just wait

하하 참으로 놀라와 진짜인 우리가 돌아와
Ha ha, truly a surprise, we are real and we have returned
조금씩 너희가 있는 곳에 서서히 올라가
Little by little, we will slowly climb up to where you are
거기 가짜 거기 있어봤자
You there, posers, no point standing there
진짜를 보여줄께 우리가 거기 닿자마자
We will show you what's real as soon as we get there
세상 이상 너무나도 괴상
World is strange, so very weird
너희가 최고라니 그건 너무 환상
You're supposed to be the best? That's too much of a fantasy
우리는 타이거 또한 차원의 차이가 너무 나는 바로 우린
We are Tiger; we are in a different dimension, we are
What! 드렁큰 타이거
What! Drunken Tiger

내 마음에 가득 차있는 나만의 슬픔
The sorrow that completely fills my heart
두 뺨에 타고 흐르는 내 눈물의 의미 너는 알고 있니
Do you know the meaning of my tears, streaming down my cheeks
그렇게 그렇게 힘들고 지쳐 외로워도
Although I'm tired, exhausted and lonely
너희들을 위해 진정한 힙합을 위한 너희들을 위해
For you, for you who stand for true hip hop
나는 꿋꿋이 버텨나가 그렇게 이겨나가
I stand tall, that's how I persevere
한 발 한 발 조금 더 용기를 내 영원한 힙합을 위해서
Step after step, summon a bit more courage for my eternal hip hop
나는 DJ Shine, 영원한 시인 (Number 1 Korean)
I am DJ Shine, the eternal poet (Number 1 Korean)

눈을 감아 들어봐 온몸으로 느껴진 전율
Close your eyes and listen; the chills that travel down your whole body
주는대로 받아 먹는 건 이쯤에서 그만두어야 해
Time to stop feeding off of what is given to you

You and you W-A-C-K who? 
You and you W-A-C-K who?
You and you W-A-C-K who?
Come back home, see me tapping your boo 

하나 같이 꼭두각시
Everyone is a puppet
모두 같은 줄에 매달려서 춤을 추는 슬픈 삐에로
A sad marionette that dances, all hanging on the same strings
이대로 그냥 갈순 없어 슬픈 미래로
We can't just keep marching into this pathetic future
술 취한 호랑이 두 마리 We be coming from ghetto
Two drunken tigers, We be coming from ghetto
진실만 말하는 거리의 시인들
Poets of the streets who only speak the truth
하지만 너의 편견에 빠진 우리 아이들
But our children who is trapped in your bias
인생의 아픔 기쁨 모두 다 들어봐야 해
We gotta listen to all the life's pain and joy
가식으로 엉킨 세상 풀어줘야 해
We gotta untangle the word twisted with hypocrisy

나는 랩퍼 랩퍼
I'm a rapper, rapper
내가 지금까지 살아오고 살아왔던 얘기들을
The stories of how I have lived and lived until now
나는 랩으로 너희들에게 얘기하려 해
I wish to tell you with this rap
이젠 날 지켜주는 건 진정한 힙합의 무대
Now what protects me is the stage of true hip hop
그리고 언제나 밝은 웃음으로 날 반겨주는 사람과 사람들
And the people and the people who always greet me with bright smiles
이제부터 마이크로폰에 나의 영혼을 나의 열정을 남김없이 쏟으리
Now I will give all my soul and passion into the microphone
그리고 진정한 랩퍼가 되리
And I will be a true rapper

Put your hands up 
Put your hands up
All the players in the house put your hands up 
Put your hands up 
Put your hands up
All my Crown-sipping niggas put your hands up
Intoxicated Tiger dropping topics
Hypnotize in illogical melodic sonic, boom up your optic 
Sippin' gin without a tonic, under the disco light I rocked it
Why? It ain't no optical illusion, it's only logic

갑자기 나타나 반짝하고 빛나다가 사라져 버리는 그런 이들과 비교하지마
Don't compare us with some shiny flash that suddenly appears then disappears
우리에게 와 내 앞으로 와
Come to us, get in front of us
힙합을 사랑한다면 다같이 취해봐
If you love hip hop, let's all get drunk

눈을 감아 들어봐 온몸으로 느껴진 전율
Close your eyes and listen; the chills that travel down your whole body
주는대로 받아 먹는 건 이쯤에서 그만두어야 해
Time to stop feeding off of what is given to you
음악 같지 않은 음악을 이젠 모두 다 집어치워 버려야해
Music that is not worth being called "music" has to be all scrapped
우리가 너희들 모두의 귀를 확실하게 바꿔줄께 기다려
We will change all of your ears, just wait

In 15 words or less:  Undisputed king Korean hip hop (they still call him Tiger you fucking haterz)

Maybe they should should be ranked higher because...  Made hip hop a mainstream genre. What more is necessary?

Maybe they should be ranked lower because...  At the end of the day, how big is hip hop (in its purest form) in Korea?

Why is this artist important?
Development of Korean hip hop is a fascinating story that deserves a closer chronicling. It is a modern case study of how an utterly foreign musical genre spread, took root, and eventually integrated itself into an essential part of the local pop music scene. This process, of course, did not happen by itself. Korean hip hop can be considered a forest, with many a skilled hand that planted, tended and lovingly nurtured each tree. And the credit to the tallest, most majestic tree goes to Tiger JK and Drunken Tiger.

The history of hip hop in Korea arguably dates back to 1989, when a mid-major singer named Hong Seo-beom [홍서범] included a rap track in his album. However, it would take a decade before Korean pop musicians to produce any music that the international audience would recognize as hip hop. The hip hop-esque music from the transitional period of 1990s is sometimes referred to as "rap dance," a genre that is still alive and well in Korea. "Rap dance" is chiefly a dance number, of which varying portions are dedicated to rapping. (This format can easily be seen in the contemporary K-pop idol music.) Although rap dance did much to introduce the Korean audience to hip hop, it still had some distance from hiphop proper, characterized by the rhyme and flow of mostly spoken words over rhythmic beats.

Drunken Tiger was the group that bridged that gap. Tiger JK grew up in Miami and Los Angeles; DJ Shine, New York and Los Angeles. Having cut their musical teeth during the hip hop's "golden age," the two Korean American youngsters were eager to flash their authenticity in the music scene that, in their view, peddled dance music with a false label of hip hop. The provocative title song said it all: "You Think You Know Hip Hop" [너희가 힙합을 아느냐].

Sure, the early attempts were often cringe-inducing in their cheesiness. Drunken Tiger's early emulation of American black culture frequently fell flat. It would take years, and many interceding talents such as Verbal Jint and Leessang, for Korean hip hop to completely overcome the language barrier and create a rhyme and flow in the Korean language--a critical development that finally allowed Korean hip hop to convey a new level of authentic emotion. 

But why does any of that matter? For a very long time, Drunken Tiger was the only K-pop hip hop artist who refused to compromise, releasing album after album filled only with rap rather than taking the easy path of rap dance. It is an overstatement to say that Drunken Tiger single-handedly made hip hop mainstream in Korea. But they did raise a forest from what seemed to be a hostile, infertile land--a feat that required no less fearlessness than any of their American counterparts.

Interesting trivia:  Tiger JK comes from a storied musical heritage. Tiger JK's father Seo Byeong-hu [서병후] is considered Korea's first pop music critic. The elder Seo founded Pops Koreana, Korea's first pop music magazine. He was also the Korea correspondent for the Billboard magazine. Tiger JK's mother Kim Seong-ae [김성애] was a leader of a band called the Wild Cats. Tiger JK then married Yoon Mirae [윤미래], the best female rapper in Korea's rap scene.

Further Listening:  Observe Drunken Tiger's evolution into incorporating parallel rhyming with both Korean and English by listening to Die Legend 2, from Feel Ghood Muzik.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Thursday, August 07, 2014

What Makes a Good Korean Restaurant?

TK has been on a vacation for the last week, during which TK and TKWife made a giant circle driving around Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, and visited numerous national parks. Overall, it was an amazing experience. What was not amazing, however, was the one Korean restaurant that TKCouple visited, which inspired this Facebook update:
New blog concept: You tell me your favorite Korean restaurant in your town, and I will visit, eat, and tell you everything that's wrong with the food served there.
Inspired by a crappy Korean restaurant in middle America that I'm sitting in. Its walls are covered with awards from local papers, which makes me want to disband those papers.
As TK said in a comment to the update, he won't actually do this. He is a lover, not a fighter, and he certainly knows better than to mess with people's livelihood. However, there is still a teachable moment here. Many people--including many Koreans!--do not really know what separates good Korean restaurants from bad ones. These people simply do not have enough experience to form a frame of reference as to what elements good Korean restaurants have.

Don't just criticize; show the alternative. So TK will give the alternative. Here is a list of things that you should look for in a Korean restaurant in order to tell if it is a good one.

Geographic Location

In U.S.:  Let's be straight. Korean food is not yet at the place where, say, sushi is--that is to say, Korean food is not yet mainstream enough for one to expect a dependable taste for it, outside of the people who grew up eating it constantly. This necessarily means the ceiling for the quality of Korean food sold in areas sparsely populated by Koreans will be rather low. In the U.S., Koreans mostly live in Southern California, New York/North New Jersey and D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia. (The next tier of Korean American population centers are Northern California, Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle, but the drop-off is significant after the top three.) The quality of Korean food tends to track that order.

In Korea:  Korea is surrounded by seas on three sides, with each side producing different types of fish. Korea's terrain also ranges from mountains to fertile and flat fields, each yielding different types of crops. In short, Korean food is highly diverse based on geography. Because everything in Korea tends to eventually flow to Seoul, the restaurants in Seoul tend to maintain a certain level of quality. But for the real deal, look for the restaurants that sell the food that is made from the local ingredients.

Freshly made soft tofu from Sokcho. This ended up in TK's stomach within minutes.

For example, tofu requires sea water to make. (Bet you did not know that.) Thus, the best tofu comes from Korea's eastern seaboard, in which soy beans grow and the sea water is readily available. Port cities, obviously, are the best places to have fish and seafood. Jeju Island is not only known for its seafood, but also for pork from its native black pigs. Since each locality in Korea loudly advertises its specialty food, it is hard to miss the local delicacy.

Two additional points: (1) in the City of Jeonju, every dish is good; (2) in Daegu, every dish is awful. Just trust me on this. Jeonju is the birthplace of bibimbap, one of the most iconic Korean dishes. In Daegu, locals say the best food available is McDonald's.

(More after the jump.)

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Eating on a Train

Dear Korean,

Why do Korean eat hard boiled eggs in trains? Every time I took a train with my Korean wife, she always says that we should eat hard boiled eggs. But why? What is it with trains and hard boiled eggs?

Damien G.

Boiled eggs on a train is a tradition of sorts. Korea operated its first train line in 1899, and train has been the dominant mode of long distance travel in Korea all the way until the late 1970s. Trains are extremely popular even today, as the high-speed KTX (traveling at 190 mph) covers Seoul-Busan under three hours. 

Riding a certain mode of transportation for a century would inevitably engender some associated habits. In case of a train, the habit is to have boiled eggs and a soda--either cola or lemon-lime (known in Korea as 사이다 [saida]). Why boiled eggs? Why not? Especially when one considers the early days of train travel, boiled eggs make perfect sense as a snack on a moving train. They are delicious, filling, portable and not overly odorous. Plus, eggs come in their own casing. They are a far sight better than those black protein blocks that certain other train passengers eat.

Re-enactment of a snack vendor on a steam engine train. Boiled eggs are wrapped in red mesh sacks.
Near Seomjin-gang River, a restored steam engine train running on old tracks,
with old school trappings, is now a tourist attraction.
To be sure, boiled eggs are hardly the only popular snacks on a train trip. Gimbab [김밥], a rice roll, is a perennial favorite picnic food and also very popular on a train.

There are other associations of travel and food. The rest stops on Korea's freeways tend to (but does not always) have a uniform look, and the menus tend to be standardized as well. The mainstays of freeway rest stops are udon noodles, "hot bar" (fried fish cake on a stick,) and the walnut cookies (a bite-sized, walnut shaped pastry with sweet red bean filling and bits of walnut.) The rest stops that travel eastward from Seoul to the mountainous Gangwon-do Province also tend to serve pan-fried fingerling potatoes, as Gangwon-do is known for its delicious, chewy potatoes.

When TK took his first long road trip in the U.S.--from Los Angeles to Grand Canyon--he was incredibly disappointed at the West Coast freeway rest stops, which are nothing more than a bathroom in the desert flanked by a few dingy vending machines. The East Coast rest stops are marginally better, but they don't serve udon noodles. Pity, because rest stop udon is fantastic.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Things TK Noticed in Korea

As some of you may have noticed, TK has been in Korea for the last couple of weeks. One of the pleasures of visiting Korea is to observe the changes. Because Korea is such a fast-changing society, even one year in between the visits (as was the case with TK's) is enough to produce noticeable, interesting changes. Here are three things that TK noticed in his visit:

(1) Beer.   Good beer is mainstream. Good beer is mainstream! In Korea! In the land of horse piss beer! Yes, it is true, good beer is available in Korea to a degree that has never been seen before. As TK previously predicted, the microbrewery movement in Korea is finally taking off. Even the big boys--i.e. Hite and OB--improved their default beer and came out with more drinkable stuff. Microbreweries are now opening their own restaurants and pubs all over Seoul; it will be a matter of time before they spread to other large cities of Korea.

(2) Public Bathrooms.   Once upon a time--say, 10 years ago--using a public bathroom in Korea was a serious gamble. You had to avoid the dreaded "squat toilet" (and no, TK is not going to put up a picture here.) In about 90 percent of the times, there was no toilet paper. Cleanliness? Pfft, people tossed the dirty toilet paper into an open-faced trash can.

Not so any more. In no case was TK in any danger of not finding toilet paper in a public toilet. All of them were reasonably clean--even the ones in incredibly crowded subway stations. The bathrooms in the Gangnam station smelled less of urine than the elevator of the Penn Station subway stop in New York. This is true.

(3) Chinese people.   There are more Chinese folks in Korea than ever. Tourist districts of Seoul have huge banners in Chinese. Thanks to a new investment visa, Jeju Island has a massive increase in Chinese folks in the last few years, to the point that Koreans are joking about how they need to learn Chinese if they want to retire in the island.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book giveaway winners!

First, the answers to the trivia:

1.  SM Entertainment is the management company of the pioneering female idol star, BoA.
2.  Shin Dae-cheol is the guitarist for the band Sinawi, whose bassist at one point was the legendary Seo Taiji.
3.  Kim Min-gi is the artist whose best known song is the Morning Dew.

Somehow, Question 2 tripped up a big number of entrants. The question asked for the name of the guitarist of the band, but many submitted "Sinawi" as the answer.

Many people still got all three questions correct, and sent terrific stories that made TK's heart all warm and fuzzy. TK picked the best three. Congratulations, Evan T., Michael L. and Larissa F.! You will receive an email from TK soon. For everyone, thank you so much for reading!

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Friday, July 04, 2014

Book Giveaway Trivia Time!

Dear readers,

The good folks at Tuttle Publishing, one of the best publishers of books on Asia, have sponsored an exclusive book giveaway event for Ask a Korean! readers. The prize? K-Pop Now! by Mark James Russell, which the Korean previously reviewed here. For anyone who needs an introductory overview of the current K-pop phenomenon, it is a great introduction.

For the give away, TK has put together a trivia competition. The questions and answers are from this blog's series on 50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists, available here. TK will keep the competition upon until noon (Eastern Time) of Friday, July 11. Please submit the three correct answers, and a good story about how you came across the blog and why you keep reading it. The top three will receive the prize mailed, no matter where they live in the world.

Here are the questions. Please remember to add your own story in addition to the answers to the trivia. Buena suerte.

Trivia Questions!

1.  This pioneering idol singer debuted at age 14, after having learned Japanese by living in the house of an NHK news anchor as a child. What is the name of her management company?

2.  K-pop legend Seo Taiji began his career as the bassist for this heavy metal band. What was the name of the guitarist for the band?

3. This artist is likened to Bob Dylan, elegantly singing a theme of resistance against Korea's fascist regime during 1970. His best known song is called the Morning Dew. What is the name of this artist?

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Sweet, Delicious Eff You

Dear Korean,

Reading this article, I was wondering whether the statement "The popular pumpkin toffees have become a shorthand for an insult in South Korea, where 'Go eat toffee' means a ruder version of 'get lost'" is true. Is there even a "tradition" to throw toffee? In my culture we throw sweets and candies as a sign of good luck and happiness.

Curious Reader

A bit of background first. As this blog (unfortunately) predicted, Korean national soccer team returned from the Brazil World Cup with a disappointing result of two losses and one draw.

Upon their return, they were greeted with a toffee shower:

Note the toffees on the floor.

So yes, it's true: throwing toffee is an insult. But why? That question becomes fairly easy to understand when one sees what a traditional Korean toffee looks like. It looks like this:

Sweet and delicious.
This is called 엿 [yeot] in Korean. "Toffee" is a solid translation, because that's what yeot is--it is a candy created by solidifying thin strands of syrup. The insult is to say 엿 먹어라, or "eat yeot." Hm, put this long, sticky thing into your mouth? Wonder what that could possibly mean?

(For those lacking in imagination, it means: "Eat a dick.")

Interestingly, this insult is more often delivered with words rather than with the actual candy. In the right context, gifting the candy is not an insult at all. For example, someone who is preparing for an exam often receives yeot as a gift, as an encouragement to "stick" the exam (=pass the exam.) But of course, there is no mistaking the intent behind the toffee shower that the the national team received.

Several of you also emailed to ask how the Korean felt about the way in which the players were received. His feeling is: they probably don't deserve it, but it is part of the job description. Certain players--Son Heung-min comes to mind--played their hearts out, and definitely did not deserve to be told to "fuck off." Ideally, one should be able to focus-fire the insult. If one threw the yeot only to those who deserved the most blame, striker Park Chu-young and goalie Jung Sung-ryong would be getting a cannonball of candies to their faces. 

(And Jung won't be able to catch a single one of them. Hey-oh!) 

But that's what sports stars are. They are not paid big money to put a ball through a goal or a hoop or into the end zone. They are paid to serve as the vessel into which we project our desire. In this instance, Korean people's desire was hardly unreasonable; it is not as if there was an expectation that the team would win the whole thing. The team was expected to play hard, and play competently. More than a few players on the team failed at this. And if all they receive in return is some candies thrown at their face, that is not a huge injustice.

-UPDATE: July 3, 2014-

1.  Renowned food blogger Joe McPherson, who blogs at Zenkimchi, lodged this objection:  "Yeot is more like a taffy than toffee." Truth be told, TK did not even realize there was a difference between taffy and toffee. Alrighty then.

2.  This post was featured on Deadspin, in which some of Deadspin's commenters questioned why the yeot showing in the photos taken at the airport does not look like the yeot photo in this post. The reason is actually pretty simple: in the era of commercialization, the traditional long yeot has been re-packaged into a bite-sized candy. The bite-size yeot is still quite enough to convey the insulting message, and has the bonus of being a better aerial projectile.

3.  Now, for the really fun part. Since this post went up, a number of Korean readers provided several alternate theories as to why "eat yeot" is an insult. The theory that TK presented in the post is the prevailing theory: that yeot looks like penis, and "eat yeot" means "eat a dick." But the alternate theories are plenty interesting in their own right, so here they are:

- Probably the most colorful theory is that "eat yeot" comes from a botched exam in 1969. In the middle school entrance exam of 1969 (yes, Korea used to have an entrance exam for middle schools,) there was a question about the appropriate coagulating agent in the yeot-making process. Because of a mistake, there were two possible answers, but the testing authorities only recognized one of the answers. The enraged parents of the students then mobbed the testing authorities, shoving a homemade yeot made with the alternate substance into the faces of the befuddled testing authorities, screaming: "Eat this yeot! Eat it!"

This event actually did happen, but it is almost certainly not the origin of the phrase "eat yeot" because there are examples of "eat yeot" usage that pre-dates 1969. But it's a fun story.

- One alternate theory says:  "eat yeot" means "shut up," because apparently there is a Western tradition in which the dead's mouth was filled with thick syrup to keep it closed. This is most likely a wild speculation.

- Another alternate theory says:  "eat yeot" is a bastardization of "eat yeom" [염 먹어라]. "Yeom" is a process by which Koreans prepare the dead body for the funeral. That is to say--the theory is that "eat yeot" really means "go die." TK does not think this is particularly compelling, because yeom is a process rather than a substance that actually goes into one's mouth.

- There is even a dispute as to whether "yeot" refers to a man's genitalia. One of the leading theories is that "eat yeot" is a slang term originating from Namsadangpae [남사당패], a famed circus/clown act in Korea that has survived for centuries. According to the Namsadangpae lingo, yeot actually refers to vagina rather than penis.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Korea was never a Part of China

Dear Korean,

I’m from Singapore and visited Korea for the first time last week. I went to the National and National Folk Museums in Seoul, and noticed that the Koreans talked mostly of their early relations with China as one of “international exchange” or “cultural exchange”, seemingly having forgotten that Korea was a vassal state of the Chinese empire and paid tribute to it in order to maintain autonomy. Will the Koreans never admit to having been part of China? 


Short answer: Koreans will never admit such a thing, because Korea has never been a part of China.

The confusion most comes from misunderstanding the term "vassal state." The concept of "vassal state" (alternately known as a "tributary state") does not really exist any more, nor has it truly existed in the history of the Western civilization. But it does vaguely sound like "colony" of the early 20th century vintage, which leads to the confusion that Korea was a part of China. That is simply not the case. "Vassal state" is a diplomatic concept that was unique to pre-modern Northeast Asia. The concept must be understood within that context, because it makes no sense outside of it.

(It must be noted that nationalistic Chinese and Japanese deliberately sow this confusion. By doing so, nationalistic Chinese exaggerate the reach of the Chinese Empire; nationalistic Japanese justifies Imperial Japan's invasion of Korea, by claiming that Korea was simply going from one colonial master to another.)

Depiction of Korean tributary envoys to China, by Kim Hong-do, circa late 18th century

Put yourself in pre-modern Northeast Asia for a moment. There is one nation in the center--China, or 中國 (literally, the "center country")--that has been clearly superior to all nations surrounding it in every aspect of civilization, including military, trade, arts, philosophy and science, for two thousand years

Stop there, and let two thousand years sink into your brain. Think hard about how long that time is. Think about how old your grandparents are, and think about how many more generations you have to travel upward to hit two thousand years. Think about how much of our current tradition we take for granted, and how old those traditions are. Americans love to talk about their democratic tradition, but the age of that tradition is barely more than ten percent of the Chinese empire's history. Americans look to Europe for a deeper tradition, but European tradition prior to the Renaissance--which began in the 14th century--was nothing to write home about. 

This exercise is necessary because we the modern people often get myopic, and think that beliefs of the past are dumb or absurd. Not so: if Chinese hegemony has been true for two thousand years, it is simply true to anyone living within those two thousand years in China or near China. It is like living next to the Roman Empire that never went away until the 20th century. In such a situation, it would actually be irrational to think anything other than that the world revolves around China.

In those two thousand years, Northeast Asia was a "sinosphere"--a vast region in which China acted as a center of gravity of every aspect of human civilization. Of course, other nations in the region, including Japan, Vietnam and Korea, developed their own civilization which was quite glorious in its own right. But every nation in the sinosphere shared roughly the same governing philosophy, religion, social structure and writing system, all of which ultimately originated from China.

In this sinosphere, the emperor of China naturally considered himself to be the ruler of the entire civilized world. To the Chinese empire, the entire world consisted of: (1) China, (2) civilized nations that are vassal states to China (i.e. having a diplomatic relation with China,) (3) civilized nations that are not yet vassal states to China ( i.e. having no diplomatic relation with China,) and (4) uncivilized barbarians. During the Qing Dynasty in the early 19th century, China even considered the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy and England to be China's vassal states.

Informed by Confucianism (the shared ideology in sinosphere,) there was a mutual obligation between China and its vassal states. China provided vassal states with governing legitimacy, military security and (relatively) free trade. Vassal states, in return, provided a pledge of loyalty, acceptance of the Chinese emperor as the ultimate governing authority and regular tributes.

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, June 16, 2014

World Cup Thoughts

Yes, the Korean realizes that he is far overdue for a post. In his defense, how can one write a lengthy post when there are so many excellent games to watch?!

I mean, just look at this amazing Van Persie goal. I could watch this all day.

Actually, forget that. I could watch THIS all day.

Every flying man deserves a cape.

Which brings us to Team Korea, which takes the pitch tomorrow against Russia. Unlike the Korean's other homeland--the United States, conquerer of the Black Stars--Team Korea belongs to the soft, soft "Group of Life." Other than Belgium (the "sudden juggernaut,") all three teams in the group--Korea, Russia and Algeria--seem to have a legitimate chance of advancing. On paper.

But don't be fooled by the paper. Haven't you learned anything from the papers like the New York Post? Or the papers that constituted credit default swaps which suddenly became a value-destroying black hole? Papers lie, and they lie about Team Korea's chances. This Korean team is one of the worst Team Koreas in recent memory. Everything about them is terrible. The defense is a never-ending horror show, the offense too young and too green. The team treats scoring chances like a nerdy teenager running into a supermodel. Instead of confidently approaching the object of desire, they blubber, kick about wildly and then explosively self-destruct.

You think the Korean is joking, but he emphatically is not. Just look at this chart of least favorite teams compiled by the New York Times. Obviously, Korea's least favorite team is Japan because obligatory. But Korea's second least favorite team? Team Korea. Our nationalism is not so great that we root for crap. When we see crap, we hate it, even if it ends up being self-hate.

So, that's Team Korea's World Cup chances in a nutshell. It would be lucky to salvage two losses and a draw, while giving up no more than two goals in either losses. (There is a real chance that Korea could lose 5-0 to Belgium. Mark my words.) Team Korea is that sick puppy that you picked up from the side of the road, that mangy one which would surely die in a couple of days. Like your parents said, don't get too attached. Just sit back, quietly mutter "Well, at least we made the Cup," and thank your lucky stars if you have another country that you may legitimately root for. In that spirit:  USA! USA! USA!

(Seriously though, I really want Korea to win. Just one game. Is that too much to ask?)

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