Monthly Archives: March 2017

Mar 30

In Korean restrooms, you will never drop the soap (and it won’t be stolen)

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Strange China News

Why is there no toilet paper or soap in most Chinese bathrooms? “People will steal it,” my friends told me.

I always thought, Who would steal toilet paper? But when authorities put a toilet paper roll into the bathroom at the Temple of Heaven earlier this month, the Beijing Evening News caught people (especially elderly people) taking huge amounts of toilet paper home for personal use.

Later they installed a mechanism that requires toilet-users to have a photo taken before automatically dispensing 2 feet of paper.

As for soap, Chinese could adopt an innovation from Korea: bar soap on a stick.

Mar 12

1+1=Buy one, get one free in Korea

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea

Shop in a Korean convenience store very often, and you will no doubt hear “1 plus 1” (in English) sometime when you are purchasing something. Pretty self-explanatory. “1 plus 1” means “buy one, get one free.” It’s a fun phrase and one that shows the popularity of simile English words entering the Korean language.


Then you have Korean words based on English words, like:
bus = beo-seu (버스)
fast food = pae-seu-teu pu-deu (패스트 푸드)
cell phone (hand phone) = haen-deu-pon (핸드폰)
concert = kon-seo-teu (콘서트)

Concert is an interesting word, because the word kon-seo-teu mainly refers to modern music and pop music, while an older, more formal word refers to a concert of orchestra or classical music: oeum-ag-hui (음악회). This word shows the Korean language’s other major source of linguistic influence: Chinese. Oeum-mag means “music,” but the part that is very Chinese is hui, which sounds almost exactly like the Chinese character for event or meeting from which it derives: hui (会).


Back to the topic: Convenience stores are real convenience in subways, where there are often convenience stores within stations, especially along the route to transfer between lines. Another great thing about Korean convenience stores is how many of them have heated containers for hot drinks like coffee and soy milk drinks. Koreans love for coffee means that you can get a passable Americano hot and prepackaged in no time at all.

Mar 10

Park removed from office: photos and fireworks from the celebration

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Society

Park Geun-hye was officially removed from office today by the Constitutional Court. I will have more to write later. For now, here is a photo gallery from the celebration by her opponents. Click play to see the images.

I wrote a short post about it for my political blog, Bombs + Dollars.

In part:

Korean parties fuse and change and rebrand all the time, so of course Park’s Saenuri party has already rechristened itself the Liberty Korea Party. It stands little to no chance. In the last poll released before Park’s impeachment, Park’s approval rating was 5 percent, and the Saenuri/LKP’s support dropped from 34 percent in November 2016 to 12 percent in January 2017.

What this means for the future of THAAD’s deployment is uncertain. The Korean opposition had opposed THAAD for the past year, but in January both Moon and People’s Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo expressed that they might be reconsidering their opposition on the basis that it would hurt U.S. relations to retreat from a decision that was already made (by Park’s administration).

Read the full article: The implications of Park’s removal from office for Korea

Previously I covered a pro-Park protest: Why some Koreans are still supporting Park Geun-hye at a March 1 Independence Day rally

Mar 08

Kakao Friends Store: Branded stickers from chat apps take over Asia

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Photos

I wrote last year about how LINE Friends Cafes are opening up around China, based on the characters in the branded stickers of the Japanese chat app LINE.

Now upon my arrival in Korea, I noticed a similar store with Korean chat characters.

In Korea, Kakao is the leading chat app, with, Kakao’s investor relations team claims, 41 million domestic active users (in a country of 50 million). Apparently it noticed the profitability trend of characters, too. Kakao opened its second store in Hongdae in November 2016. Its first store, in Gangnam, attracted 450,000 visitors in one of its first months. With the opening of the Gangnam store, revenue from Kakao Friends merchandise more than doubled versus the previous quarter. Now there are eight stores in Seoul.
Why do chat app character stores have so much success in Asia? Probably because there is a kawaii (or kiyomi in Korea) culture in Asia that is attracted towards cuteness. Chat characters and smileys are also a big part of chatting. In fact, emojis were initially developed in Japan, as the word “emoji” and the large amount of Japan-specific international emojis is testament to.

The mobile companies Line Corp, Kakao, and TenCent (WeChat) all focus on cross platform branding and sales channels. Besides its chat app, Kakao has taxi-hailing and ride-hailing apps, apps for shopping, video sharing, payment, games, Kakao Story, Kakao Music, and more. Unified use of the characters across platforms (Kakao Games feature the Kakao Friends) helps promote each platform. LINE even did a web series about their LINE Friends.




Mar 02

Why some Koreans are still supporting Park Geun-hye at a March 1 Independence Day rally

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Korea , Society

It was one of the most important patriotic holidays in South Korea and also a heated period of political discord. March 1, 2017 was 98 years to the day Korean activists read a document they called the Korean Declaration of Independence, in an affront to Japanese colonialism, and two days after impeached president Park Geun-hye’s legal representative read a statement expressing “regret” on her behalf to the Constitutional Court hearing the case.
Having just arrived in Korea one week ago, I was thrust into the excitement. I went looking for an event to commemorate the March 1 Movement, and I found democracy asserting itself in all its ugliness and glory. People waved their own country’s flag, held signs calling the press “liars,” and defaced images of their political enemies, calling them “traitor,” “rubbish,” and “you’re not going to breath”—all without interference from the military police. In 1919, the Japanese killed thousands in the ensuing two months after the Koreans asserted their independence.

It wasn’t until 1945, with the Allied victory of World War II, that Korea finally was afforded independence from Japan. Then it was divided in half and has remained as such to this day. But while North Korea remains a one-party communist state, consistently landing in the bottom four countries int he world in rankings of political freedom and human rights, South Korea became a democracy in 1988, ending decades of repressive governance, and regularly experiences passionate protests and peaceful exchanges of political power.

Since it was reported that Park’s advisor, Choi Soon-sil, was involved in shaking down chaebols (Korean conglomerates), Korean streets have rocked with protests. By November, one month after the scandal was reported, Park’s approval rating hit 5 percent, and her disapproval rating 90 percent. On December 9, the legislature voted 234-56 for impeachment. Now the Constitutional Court is reportedly close to reaching a verdict on whether the impeachment will stand.
like china


didn’t go seeking out a pro-Park protest. I just happened to find it when I went to City Hall to see what was happening on March 1. Inside City Hall subway station, passengers exiting were carrying flags. The crowd pushing towards the exits made me feel like I was in China again. In the rush, I ended up in the midsts of masses waving flags to music and speeches and noticed the political connotations.

For someone who has 5 percent approval, the crowd seemed pretty large. (Voice of America cited reports of 200,000 people protesting at a pro-Park event in mid-February, and it may have been even larger on March 1. One of the anti-Park protests was pegged at 750,000.) Even amongst those aged 60 or older, the bulk of the pro-Park protesters, only 10 percent of seniors supported her in a December poll by Gallup Korea released just before she was impeached. For the age groups 19-29, 30-39, and 40-49, the percentage who supported her was 1 percent, 1 percent, and 2 percent, respectively.
flags 4
view above
One woman I talked to said, “We believe the president is honest, and she is innocent.” Only Choi was guilty of crimes, she said. A man said he wasn’t there to support Park but rather to oppose what he said was an “illegal” impeachment. He also railed against what he felt was a biased judiciary. Then there were the many people carrying signs attacking the media for “lying.” A group calling itself the Patriotic Alliance to Protect Liberal Democracy posted a banner decrying the “rebellious impeachment” of the president and called the pro-impeachment protesters “instigators” who were “violating constitutional law.”

Park’s lawyers are arguing that the impeachment was illegal or improper for procedural and other reasons. A special prosecutor has named Park herself as a suspect for bribery, and 17 people have been referred for trial. In addition to political advisors, a number of professors and officials at Ewha Womans University, which allegedly gave Choi’s daughter special treatment, have been arrested. The Constitutional Court is made up of eight judges, all of whom have been appointed by two conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park. (Ordinarily, it is nine judges, but one of the seats is empty because the judge’s term ended. Six judges must agree for the impeachment to be upheld.)
military man


ehind the individual political disputes lays a bigger issue cutting to the heart of Korean political divides. The Korean flags being waved along with American flags, the prevalence of marine veteran hats and military berets on mens’ heads, and the banners printed with portraits of Park’s father, former president Park Chung-hee, says it all.

Korea’s cultural and generational divides echo today. Conservatives still accuse liberals of having communist sympathies or even ties. Perhaps to counter the narrative of the “patriots,” pro-impeachment protesters waved Korean flags on March 1 with yellow ribbons for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, the response to which Park’s critics claim Park was negligent in handling.

Conservatives say young liberals forget about the importance of America and the sacrifices of the soldiers who won South Korea’s freedom. But what of the continued reverence for Park Chung-hee?

On the banner from left to right: Park Geun-hye, Syngman Rhee, and Park Chung-hee.

On the banner from left to right: Park Geun-hye, Syngman Rhee, and Park Chung-hee.

Sure he presided over an industrialization program that put South Korea on the path to join the first world nations. But if conservatives accused liberals of forgetting the the cost of freedom, have conservatives forgot about all those dissidents arrested and tortured by Park’s regime? Have they forgotten about how Park rescinded the constitution and abolished freedom of speech, assembly, and the press? How his government monitored newsrooms and had critical journalists fired? How the Korean CIA under Park’s rule fabricated charges against activists and had them arrested and eight of them executed within 24 hours of the verdict? The director of the KCIA who assassinated Park, Kim Jae-kyu, said he killed him because of Park’s insistence on using any means necessary to violently suppress protests.

The supporters of Park Chung-hee’s daughter can protest the Constitutional Court now, but only because of the sacrifices of so many activists who risked life and freedom to protest Syngman Rhee, Park and Chun Doo-hwan. As one sign at the rally said, “Freedom isn’t free.”

Rhee, the other man on the banner of great Korean leaders conservatives venerate, took power in 1945 after years in exile as an independence activist. He manipulated his way into the American’s favor and kept the Soviets from unifying Korea under communism. He led Korea through the Korean War, but he used coercion to keep himself and his allies in power by arresting opposition legislators and rigging elections. He had to flee back to the U.S. in 1960 after ordering a crackdown that resulted in the police killing protesters.

The Korean War may have ended six decades ago, but just this past month North Korea tested yet another nuclear missile and murdered its dictator’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-Nam. The U.S.-produced THAAD missile defense system Park’s government agreed to host is a flashpoint today, with much of the opposition opposing its deployment. They say it will unnecessarily exacerbate tensions with the North as well as with China. Chulhong Kim, a Korean Liberty Party (Park’s party) activist and theology professor at a Presbyterian college, accused the opposition of supporting a “pro-North Korean, anti-American, anti-free market, anti-human rights” agenda.


ational security is one of the main reasons anybody still supports Park. 15 percent of respondents who approved of Park in the December survey cited “diplomacy / international relations” and 13 percent cited “North Korea / security policy,” the two leading reasons. The rhetoric against the left by many on the right can indeed be unhinged, but some on Korea’s far left really do harbor sympathetic feelings, and even more defend the rights of those who harbor sympathetic feelings.

Talking about North Korea, some activists and writers living here—and this speaks to a strain of the global left, as well—will say things like, “What degree of that [information about North Korea] is American propaganda? Because, as you know, America tries to demonize countries that it finds a danger to its self interest. … A lot of people don’t understand that it was the North Koreans who were trying to kick the Americans’ asses out of here. They were the ones trying to kick the new imperialists out of here. But you don’t read it that way.”

South Korea, more than almost any country in the world today, proves that democracy is more complex than can be condensed into one-sentence slogans and absolutist maxims. Voltaire didn’t live in post-war Germany or South Korea. Here, “anti-government” revolutionary activity is still illegal under the National Security Act, a law that some progressives want repealed. Here, the government occasionally restricts South Korean speech to the North by balloon drop, and the leading progressive party has tried to pass a law make balloon drops harder.

At end, if one wants to defend to the death anyone’s right to say anything, they have to defend that person’s right and ability to live in a free and open society. Citizens of South Vietnam didn’t have that right. Neither did those who died on the streets of Seoul and Gwangju in 1919, 1960, or 1980.



School pride: Some protesters come with their classmates and unfurl banners celebrating their old high school.

School pride: Some protesters come with their classmates and unfurl banners celebrating their old high school.

UPDATE: Park was removed from office on March 11 in a unanimous decision. I visited the victory celebration by the anti-Park protesters and shared photos.

”Impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye tells court of ‘regret’,” AFP/The Straits Times
”What now for Park’s impeachment trial?,” The Korea Herald
”Park impeachment ruling expected in mid-March,” Nikkei Asian Review
”South Korea Impeachment Drama Enters Final Act,” Brian Padden, VOA News
”South Korean Far-Right Rises Up to Defend Impeached President,” Brian Padden, VOA News
Protesters hold weekly rally against impeached Park, Yonhap News
”Is Constitutional Court stacked in Park’s favor?,” The Korea Herald