news

Airlines Behaving Badly

Airlines Behaving Badly

United Airlines has changed its employee booking policy. As of Friday, crew members must be booked 60 minutes in advance and cannot bump passengers that are already on a plane. Well, duh. 

This policy change has come about because of a recent incident, captured on video. Normally I don't like to judge an airline or any other company on one incident. Even with video evidence, I'm aware of the fact that I don't know what happened before the cameras started rolling. 

But—wow—this video is crazy.

Talking Politics: Freedoms of Speech in Canada and Around the World

Well here we are, federal Election Day in Canada. This has—as the media constantly reminds us—been the longest-running election campaign in Canadian history. It’s important to be informed, though it can be exhausting to try to navigate the constant barrage of mixed messages...

Korean Parliament First Fistfights, Then Passes Bill

It's the same old parliamentary story: one party wants to pass a bill, opposing party has concerns, negotiations fail, both parties wrestle each other to the ground like wild animals in expensive clothing. It's a tale that has passed down from news programs to viewers for generations---well, as long as South Korea has been a democratic country, that is.

Screenshot from the Reuters video

Screenshot from the Reuters video

Democracy is supposed to give people voices, but here in Korea, it means fists. I don't know how this isn't embarrassing for politicians here, especially since it is a common occurrence. Just a few months after I moved here, there was a fight (video) in December 2007 about now-President Lee Myung Bak's fraud investigation. A man had to be removed from the room by stretcher. Last year in December, there was another one (video), this time about the free trade agreement with the US. Someone involved in this fight suffered head injuries; not surprising when you hear that sledgehammers were involved. And now this year there have already been two: one in January (video) and one this week (video), both ending with some hospital visits.

I haven't quite been able to understand what January's brawl was over (a protest or blockade or something---though I'm beginning to think it doesn't really matter), and the one this week involved opposing views on a media bill. Which was passed, by the way.

The Koreas Call Hillary Clinton a "Funny Lady" & a "Role Model"

This week, Hillary Clinton made the news for her exchange of words with North Korea. After she likened North Korean leaders to "unruly children" whose antics should be ignored, they responded: “We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady, as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community,” the North Korean statement said. “Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.” (New York Times) That's a harsh statement, especially compared to her visit to Seoul earlier this year.

In late February, she made a speech at Ewha Women's University, where she impressed the audience of a few thousand female students. After the appropriate applause for her equally appropriate speech on women's empowerment, there was a town hall-like Q&A session. She spent the hour answering personal questions about her upbringing, finding love, her family and balancing motherhood and her career, feeling a little "more like an advice columnist than a secretary of state" (New York Times). A couple weeks later, Clinton was voted as the most respected international role model for women by the school's freshman students.

Korean Food is "Good for Health"

Koreans are obsessed with "health." Diet, exercise---it's a daily part of Korean culture. Outdoor gyms (which deserve their own article later) can be seen at apartment complexes, city parks, and at the tops of Seoul's many mountains. My students constantly chat about body shapes (which, again, need their own explanation). Perhaps their greatest concern, though, is healthy food.

Me: [eating crackers at my desk at work] Mr. Lee: [looks at me without saying a word] Me: Uh, hi, Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee: I heard on the news that these [crackers] are not good for health. Me: Oh really? What makes them unhealthy? Mr. Lee: I don't know. I only heard they are not good for health.

By hearing crackers (mine were unsalted soda crackers, by the way) are not "good for health," I'm pretty sure that Mr. Lee---and anyone else who watched that news program---will never eat crackers again.

They have nothing to worry about, though, because any Korean will proudly tell you that they have the healthiest food in the world.

When I first arrived in Korea, my co-workers kept telling me that kimchi, a fermented cabbage (or other vegetable) dish, was one of the top 5 healthiest foods in the world. I kept laughing it off, thinking, Okay, it's healthy. But it's not like there's an official list or anything. But ask a Korean, and they will tell you there is.

Health magazine published an article listing the "World's Healthiest Foods" a few years ago and kimchi made the cut, along with lentils from India, yogurt from Greece, Japanese soy, and Spain's olive oil. The magazine attributes its "healthiness" to its large doses of Vitamins A, B, and C, as well as it's "healthy bacteria," lactobacilli.

Most Koreans eat kimchi with every meal and attribute their personal health to this dish. In fact, I was told that Korea did not experience a SARS outbreak because of kimchi. "Kimchi kept Koreans strong," I was told.

Dokdo, Korea & Japan

In spring 1592, Japanese ships landed in Busan, Korea, intending to invade the country and find passage to China. This was the beginning of the Imjin War, or Seven Years War, between Korea and Japan, and the beginning of a difficult relationship between the two East Asian countries. In the late 1800s, Japan was an emerging country that wanted to protect itself, and Korea was seen as a threat. Nothing personal; just a little too close for comfort. Japan sought to annex the country before someone else---someone more dangerous---could. To get Korea, Japan fought China for several months between 1894 and 1895 and fought Russia between 1904 and 1905, winning both. So, on 22 August 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea.

For 35 years, Koreans endured harsh colonial rule and cultural genocide

For thirty-five years, Koreans endured harsh colonial rule. This period in Korea can be considered a "cultural genocide" because of the suppression of the Korean language, removal of Korean artifacts, modification of old songs and poems to refer to Japanese emperors instead of Korean emperors, and physical alteration or destruction of Korean temples and monuments. On top of that, the Korean people suffered immeasurable pain and destruction. Some people were burned or buried alive, some men were conscripted into the Japanese military, some women were forced to serve as "comfort women" to Japanese soldiers, and some families were forced to change their surname to a Japanese name.

While some scholars argue that Korea gained some economic benefits during the Japanese Imperial Period and suggest that things could have been worse if Russia or China had won the opportunity to annex Korea instead of Japan, this period definitely didn't improve the personal relationship between the Koreans and Japanese.

Today, the Japan-Korea rivalry surfaces in the dispute over the ownership of Liancourt Rocks, two small islands known as Dokdo ("solitary island") in Korea and Takeshima ("bamboo island") in Japan. The islands, currently occupied by Korea, are located roughly halfway between South Korea and Japan in the East Sea. Small and rocky, there's not much to see on the islands, but they're located in a valuable fishing area and could potentially hold natural gas reserves. Both countries are desperately searching old documents and maps for proof of territorial claims.

In July of this year, the Japanese government decided to mention the dispute in new junior high school textbooks and claim the islands as Japanese. Around the same time, the US Board of Geographic Names changed its listing of Liancourt Rocks from South Korea to "Undesignated Sovereignty." Korean politicians and citizens protested both issues, and the US quickly reversed its decision and relisted the islands as under South Korean control. At the height of the "textbook scandal," the South Korean government temporarily removed its ambassador from Japan and protesters killed live pheasants (the Japanese national bird) in demonstrations in Seoul.

When asked to make a poster advertising Korea, one group of my students chose to make a poster advertising Dokdo. Looks like the Japan-Korea rivalry isn't going away any time soon.

Tourist Shot & Killed by North Korean Soldier

Before I read or heard anything about it in the news, my sister's boyfriend (all the way in Scotland) mentioned that a South Korean woman had been killed by a North Korean soldier while she was on vacation there.

What will this do for the already unsteady inter-Korean relations? North Korea claims the woman had wandered into a restricted area near the resort at Mount Geumgang early in the morning on 11 July. She apparently just wanted to see the sunrise. She ran when she was warned by the soldiers and was shot dead. The area was restricted and surrounded by a fence, but apparently the fence abruptly ended on a sand dune, where she supposedly walked, with little or no posted warnings for her to see.

The South Korean government argues that the reported time of death doesn't fit the evidence. How could a middle-aged woman walk over three kilometres in just twenty minutes, South Korea argues, especially on a sandy beach? But, stories from both sides have changed since the initial reports came out, making the story very confusing to follow.

While I think that the shooting was unnecessary, my big question is: why was she running away? When in North Korea, wherever you are and whatever you're doing, never run from a DPRK soldier.

Some South Koreans and foreigners travel into North Korea, but only to two designated areas (Kaesong city and Mount Geumgang) and on tours, which are, of course, highly regulated. The resort at Mount Geumgang, also known as Diamond Mountain, opened in 1998 and has since welcomed over a million visitors. I heard about the tour when I first moved to Korea and, after the excitement of my DMZ tour last fall, I was planning on visiting the Diamond Mountains to see a little bit more of North Korea. But, due to this incident and the sketchy investigation details, all tours to the Diamond Mountains have been suspended indefinitely.

More:
Story timeline and news articles 
Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) 
Border Control: Rising Tensions Between North & South Koreas

Working It

According to a 2008 ranking by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, South Koreans work more hours a year than other OECD members. South Koreans work, on average, 2357 hours a year, compared to the USA at 1797 hours a year.

Things in Korea are changing though. Just a few years ago, the government changed the 6-day work week to the typical 5-day work week. Prior to that, Korea was the only country in the OECD that worked on Saturdays. It hasn't changed completely, though; I know my school has classes every other Saturday (which gladly I am not a part of!).

DSC_0595.JPG

Korea also has more public holidays than I'm used to in Canada, but these too are slowly changing. After changing to a shorter work week, the government drops more and more holidays every year. It seems as though the government doesn't feel workers need a day off to celebrate Consitution Day or Arbor Day anymore.

In addition to losing public holidays every year (hey, I like to celebrate things), I'm thoroughly disappointed when national holidays fall on the weekends. In Canada, national holidays are "moved" to a weekday if they fall on a weekend, ensuring ourselves a long weekend. But in Korea, the holiday is the holiday--so if Foundation Day lands on a Sunday, well then enjoy your Sunday with the family but see you at work on Monday!

I can't believe that Koreans are the hardest workers, though. They may work longer, but work harder? Don't think so. It's a daily occurance to see teachers asleep at their desks, or shopping online, or gone off to our "nap room" (complete with couches and sleeping mats) for a deep sleep. As long as you're at work, it's good; you don't actually have to be working, it seems. I'm the only teacher I know that writes out a lesson plan---in fact, I was once told to stop making lesson plans!

I think it's more to do with status. Instead of "Mr." or "Ms", people are identified by job titles. Hi, I'm Melanie Teacher. So having a good job is more important than anything else. If your job is your identity, it makes more sense that you're there---a lot.

More:
Read the article from CBC here: World's hardest-working countries

Border Control: Rising Tensions Between North & South Koreas

With all the news regarding North Korea lately, I'm reminded that I'm living in a country that it still technically at war. The past two South Korean presidents, Kim Dae Jung and Lee Myung Bak's predecessor Roh Moo Hyun, presided over a decade of good relations with North Korea. Kim Dae Jung created a so-called "Sunshine Policy" with the North, a policy based on an old Aesop Fable.

In the fable, the Wind and the Sun argue over who is the most powerful. They agree to a competition, in which they would see who could strip a Man of his clothes the fastest. The Wind goes first. He blows with all his might, but the stronger his blasts, the closer the Man wraps his cloak around him. Losing all hope of victory, the Wind calls upon the Sun to see what he can do. The Sun shines out with all his warmth and the Man is soon stripping off his clothes, one after another. Finally, so overwhelmed with heat, the Man fully undresses and bathes in a stream. The moral of the story is, of course, Persuasion is better than Force.

So, Kim Dae Jung gave North Korea rice, fertilizer, and other aid with little talk of the North returning any favours. Roh Moo Hyun continued this policy, afraid that criticizing North Korea would cause greater problems for this troubled peninsula. The result of this aid was a very slight opening of North Korea. Tours in the Demilitarized Zone along the border and resorts built in North Korea became opportunities for a few visitors to peek into North Korea. In 2005, South Korea and North Korea opened a joint industrial complex comprised of seventy South Korean factories in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kaesong Industrial Park employs the cheap labour of over 23 000 North Korean workers under the guidance of hundreds of South Korean managers. In October 2007, Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Jong-il, the infamous North Korean leader, held the second-ever inter-Korean summit.

When Lee Myung Bak was elected in December last year, he promised harsher policies against the North and greater ties with the US. He said humanitarian aid would continue, but that greater aid and further cooperation from the South would rely on the North giving up its nuclear weapons. North Korea was supposed to declare its missile capabilities by the end of 2007---a deadline it missed. Again, last week, both the US and South Korea reminded North Korea it needs to declare its capabilities.

There was some news on 26 March about the UN vote on alleged human rights violations in North Korea. Lee Myung Bak is showing how different he is from the previous two South Korean presidents by stating that he is not able to ignore the human rights violations and that he's not afraid to tell North Korea what he thinks. South Korea stated it will vote against North Korea---something it hasn't done in years---and will investigate the allegations.

Early in the morning on 27 March, North Korea kicked 11 of 13 managers out of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It was a surprising move by the North, most likely a retaliation against South Korea's stronger policies. Last week, South Korea told North Korea that an expansion of the complex would be reliant on the denuclearization process.

Then, on 28 March, North Korea test-fired short-range missiles off its west coast into the Yellow Sea. South Korean officials just stated that they considered it to be regular military training. Back in 2006, North Korea test-fired missiles, shocking and undoubtedly embarrassing South Korea and its Sunshine Policy, which then drew criticism that its aid (some of it in cash) was possibly helping fund North Korea's nuclear program instead of helping the North Korean people.

The most recent news came a week later, on 3 April, under the headline "North-South Korea border tensions rising." North Korea says it will close its border to South Korean officials, as well as stop all cross-border discussions between North and South Korea. This apparently is due to South Korea refusing to apologize for its comment that South Korea would pre-emptively strike if it thought an attack from the North was imminent.

Even with all this action going on, you'd never guess it just walking around the city. No one seems to worried, which is comforting. It will be interesting to see how Lee Myung Bak's new policies will affect relations between the two Koreas. He's only been in office a month, and already it seems as though things will be very different from the previous decade. While it seems unlikely that anything actually dangerous will happen any time soon, I will continue to watch the headlines and learn more about the issues, just in case.

More:
Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)