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You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m still Instagramming away. The topic has changed, of course, and as has my user ID. Seeing as I’m no longer in Korea being Conzie in Korea just didn’t seem right, so after a night of brainstorming and the convening of a focus group I decided that the […]

Live Theater: The Pride in Seoul

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Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride is running in Seoul through November 1st. The Pride's official website has the following synopsis of the play:

Philip, Oliver and Sylvia exist in a complex love triangle which spans over half a century, living and loving simultaneously in 1958 and the present against a background of changing attitudes towards homosexuality. Past and present worlds grind together and melt apart, yet the future and its promise of sexual liberation remains ever elusive, as societal repression gives way to self-deception. 

Tickets can be found at Interpark with prices from 35 to 50 thousand won at Daehak-ro's Art One Theater. There are also special discounts for students or during Chuseok (this weekend).

An Overview of the Poets of the Hamlets and Streets – Classical Chinese Poetry of the Lower Classes of Chosun

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Kimhongdo - Hunjang

In Kim Hongdo’s (金弘道, 김홍도, 1745-1806?) famous painting of a Confucian private school, children of lower class (left row) and gentry families (right row) are seen seated in the same room.


All over the world, literacy historically has been associated with the elite. This was also true in Korea. For much of its history, the written language used was Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문) and those who knew how to read and write were mostly male members of the gentry. This started changing during the Chosun Dynasty (朝鮮, 조선, 1392-1910). As many know, with regards to the script, King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) attempted to bring literacy — and more importantly, Confucianism — to the lower classes by promulgating Hangul (한글). The new alphabet first caught on among gentry women, some of whom already literate in Classical Chinese, and gradually proliferated to members of the lower classes. Around the same time, however, Classical Chinese also had begun to take root as well.

Beginning in the 18th century, as Chosun’s economy became relatively wealthier, the lower classes, who previously had to devote most of their time to backbreaking manual labor, had the time to devote to other activities. They now had the opportunity to gather and listen to traveling bands of dancers and musicians playing pansori (판소리) and storytellers (傳奇叟, 전기수) reading from novels written in the vernacular. A number of them also had the opportunity to partake in Chosun’s high culture. Lower class families started sending their children to Confucian private schools (書堂, 서당) to learn Chinese classics. They even started forming poetry societies (詩社, 시사) to compose Classical Chinese poetry (漢詩, 한시) together.

Chosun’s Non-Gentry Poets and Poetry Societies

The Classical Chinese composed by of the lower classes is collectively called Yeohang Munhak (閭巷文學, 여항문학), or “Literature of the Hamlets and Streets.” There were four classes in Chosun Dynasty’s social order (身分制度, 신분제도): (1) the gentry Yangban (兩班, 양반), (2) skilled middle class (中人, 중인), (3) freed commoner class (良民, 양민 or 常民, 상민), and (4) vulgar class (賤民, 천민), of which slaves (奴婢, 노비) were a part. The last three comprised of the lower classes. (It should be noted that unlike China, which had abolished hereditary slavery fairly early in its history, Korean slavery was largely a hereditary system. Also, by the 18th and 19th centuries, many members of gentry families had fallen destitute (殘班, 잔반) and became indistinguishable from commoners.) The bulk of the poets from the lower classes were of the skilled middle class, but there were a number of freed commoners and even slaves that participated. They composed poetry on variety of themes, but the most reoccurring subject concerned the lives of the lower classes.

Eo Mujeok (魚無迹, 어무적, late 15th Century)

Eo Mujeok is one of the first poets from the lower classes. His father was of the gentry Yangban class, but his mother was a government maidservant (官婢, 관비). Because of the different statuses of his parents, the laws at the time (從母法, 종모법) dictated that Eo Mujeok be born into the slave status like his mother. His father educated Eo Mujeok and was eventually able to obtain freedman status (免賤, 면천) for him. Eo Mujeok was also able to serve at a very low ranking bureaucratic post for sometime, and often wrote about the toils of those in his former class. He often appealed to Confucianism in critiquing the circumstances of his time, as he does in the poem below.

新曆嘆 신력탄

Lamentation on the New Calendar (Second and fourth verses)

堯舜至今顔尙韶 요순지금안상소
周孔至今頭尙黑 주공지금두상흑
朝聞吁咈土階上 조문우불토계상
暮見絃誦杏壇側 모견현송행단측

Emperors Yao and Shun, even now their faces are still beautiful;
Duke of Zhou and Confucius, even now their heads are still black.
In the morning, they are heard discussing and debating above the earthen steps;
At evening, they are seen playing and reciting next to the apricot tree grounds.

Yao • Shun • to • now • face • still • beautiful
Zhou • Confucius • to • now • head  • still • black
Morning • to hear • onomatopoeia • onomatopoeia • earth • steps • above
Evening • to see • strings • to recite • apricot tree • ground  • next

  • 新曆嘆(신력탄) – Possible reference to a poem of the same title by Lu You (陸遊, 육유, 1125-1210), a poet of the Southern Song dynasty (南宋, 남송,1127-1279). I am not sure which calendar either poet was referring to. Chosun dynasty used the Ming Dynasty’s Great Concordance Calendar (大統曆, 대통력) and the Yuan Dynasty’s Season-Granting Calendar (授時曆, 수시력) until the 17th century, well after Eo Mujeok’s time, when it adopted the Qing Dynasty’s Time Conformity Calendar (時憲暦, 시헌력). There was research into the Islamic calendar system during King Sejong’s reign, but this predates the poem. Eo Mujeok could be simply referring to the confusion over the calendars, as there were two in use. In Lu You’s lifetime, the Southern Song dynasty promulgated seven different calendars.
  • 堯舜(요순) – Refers to the legendary Chinese emperors, who are considered model rulers in Confucianism.
  • 周(주) – Refers to Duke of Zhou (周公, 주공), another model ruler in Confucianism. He is also credited with compiling the Book of Changes (易經, 역경).
  • 吁咈(우불) – Sound of speaking or discussing.

聊與萬民同醉眠 료여만민동취면
嗚嗚共唱康衢曲 오오공창강구곡
却勸紫皇詔太史 각권자황조태사
萬萬年來一改曆 만만년래일개력

Somehow with ten-thousand people, altogether they become inebriated and asleep.
O, alas! O, alas! Together they sing the tunes of wide-open streets.
All the more, they command the purple emperor and advise the great historian.
Ten-thousand, ten-thousand years will come; only once will they fix the calendar!

Somehow • with • ten thousand • people • together • to be drunk • to sleep
Alas • alas • together • to sing • wide • road • tune
All the more • to command • purple • emperor • to advise • great • history
Ten thousand • ten thousand • year • to come • once • to fix • calendar

  • 紫皇(자황) – Refers to the Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝, 옥황상제), a deity in Taoism.
  • 太史(태사) – Refers to a literati bureaucratic office in charge of maintaining historical records.

Pak Gyegang (朴繼姜, 박계강, 16th Century)

Sixteenth century Chosun saw the first non-gentry poetry society, the Followers of the Fragrance of the Moon and Wind (風月香徒, 풍월향도). The society was headed by lead poets Yu Heuigyeong (劉希慶, 유희경, 1545-1636), who was originally a slave but later elevated to a high ranking bureaucrat, and Baek Daebung (白大鵬, 백대붕, ?-1592), who remained a slave till his death during the Japanese invasions (壬辰倭亂, 임진왜란, 1592-1598). It met at a bolder near Dobong Mountain (道峰山, 도봉산), a mountain just north of Seoul. One of its more interesting members was Pak Gyegang. Not much is known about him, other than that he was from an affluent commoner family. He is said to have been illiterate until the age of 40, when he was humiliated by a Buddhist monk because of his illiteracy. Pak Gyegang then resolved to learn how to read Classical Chinese, and became proficient enough to write poems. (On another note, it is never too late to learn the language.)

贈人 증인

Presented to Another

花落知春暮 화락지춘모
樽空覺酒無 준공각주무
光陰催白髮 광음최백발
莫惜典衣沽 막석전의고

The fallen flowers know the end of spring;
The empty casks sense the lack of wine.
Light and darkness hastens whitening of hair.
Do not regret pawning your clothes for buying wine.

Flowers • to fall • to know • spring • to set
Wine casks • empty • to sense • wine • to lack
Light • dark • to hasten • white • hair
Not • to regret • to pawn • clothes • to trade (for wine)

  • 光陰(광음) – Literally means “light and darkness.” Refers to time.

Hong Setae (洪世泰, 홍세태, 1653-1725)

The successor to the Followers of the Fragrance of the Moon and Wind society was the Naksa Poetry Society (洛社詩社, 낙사시사), which was named after a famous poetry society in Song Dynasty China that met at Luoyang (洛陽, 낙양). Most of the members of this society were of the skilled middle class. It was headed by Im Junweon (林俊元, 임준원, ?-1697), a petty staffer (胥吏, 서리), and its members met at various scenic places to compose poetry. One of its most famous members of Hong Setae. Like Eo Mujeok, his father was of the gentry class but his mother was a slave, and the laws dictated that Hong Setae be born with slave status like his mother. Eventually, he was freed and worked as a petty staffer and then was awarded a low ranking bureaucratic position. His Classical Chinese poetry was known not only in Chosun, but also in Qing Dynasty China and in Japan. Hong Setae often wrote often about the plight of those in the lower classes.

詠貧士 영빈사

A Recitation on a Poor Scholar

荒荒霜下竹 歲暮練實稀
황황상하죽 세모련실희
上有孤鳳雛 文章被其衣
상유고봉추 문장피기의

Bleak and desolate, the frost falls on the bamboo tree.
As the year becomes old, ripe fruit are few.
Above, there is a lonely phoenix birdling.
Its insignia covers its clothing.

Bleak • bleak • frost • to fall  • bamboo
Year • to set • to ripen • fruit • few
Above • to exist • lonely • phoenix • child
Writing • sentence • to wear • third-person pronoun • clothing

如何步塵區 謂言君德輝
여하보진구 위언군덕휘
北風吹羽翼 啾啾忍朝饑
북풍취우익 추추인조기

Why do you walk in the dusty lands
And call your virtue shining?
The northern winds blows over the wings’ feathers.
Murmuring and whispering, it endures its morning hunger.

Like • which • to walk • dust • region
To call • to say • you • virtue • to shine
Northern • wind • to blow • feathers • wing
To murmur • to murmur • to endure • morning • hunger

鴟鳶得腐鼠 仰視嚇且譏
저연득부서 앙시하차기
食少心則潔 食多身則肥
식소심즉결 식다신즉비

The owl and kite acquire a rotten mouse.
Gazing up, they laugh and ridicule.
When there is little food, the mind is pure;
When there is much food, the body is fat.

Owlet • kite • to obtain • rotting • mouse
To gaze up • to look • to laugh • and • to ridicule
Food • little • heart • then • pure
Food • many • body • then • fat

秉志旣不同 知命復何希
병지기불동 지명부하희
去矣天路永 千仞起高飛
거의천로영 천인기고비

Since their wills are already not the same,
Knowing the mandate, again how do they hope?
Depart! Forever on heaven’s road.
Upon a thousand paths, arise and fly high.

To capture • wills • already • not • to be same
To know • mandate • again • what • to hope
To leave • sentence terminal • heaven • road • forever
Thousand • paths • to arise • high • to fly

  • 知命(지명) – Literally “to know the mandate.” Refers to a famous passage in Analects (論語, 논어), Wei Zheng (爲政, 위정):

子曰: 吾十有五而志于學, 三十而立, 四十而不惑, 五十而知天命, 六十而耳順, 七十而從心所欲, 不踰矩.
자왈: 오십유오이지우학, 삼십이립, 사십이불혹, 오십이지천명, 륙십이이순, 칠십이종신소욕, 불유거.

The Master said, “At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.”

(Translation by James Legge)

Cho Susam (趙秀三, 조수삼, 1762-1849)

Songseokweon Shisa

Kim Hongdo’s Painting of a Soiree of the Pine Grove Stone Garden Poetry Society (松石園詩社夜宴圖, 송석원시사야연도).

The next non-gentry poetry society was the Pine Grove Stone Poetry Society (松石園詩社, 송석원시사). It was headed by Cheon Sugyeong (千壽慶, 천수경, ?-1818), who was born into a poor family, was educated in Chinese classics, and eventually became a teacher of Classical Chinese himself, instructing those of the lower classes. The society’s members met in what is now Ok’indong (玉仁洞, 옥인동) at the base on Mount Inwang (仁王山, 인왕산). The society attracted a large number of members, and held a national poetry contest (白戰, 백전) twice a year. Even Prince Heungseon (興宣大院君, 흥선대원군, 1820-1898) made an appearance at the society’s meeting once. One of its lead poets was Cho Susam (趙秀三, 조수삼, 1762-1849), who came from a skilled middle class family. Despite his non-gentry background, he was able to take the the civil service examination (科擧, 과거) and passed it at the age of 83. Cho Susam enjoyed travelling very much: he visited China on six occasions, and Pyeong’an (平安道, 평안도), Hamgyeong (咸鏡道, 함경도), and Gyeongsang (慶尙道, 경상도) Provinces once each. The following is one from a series of poems that he composed during his visit of Hamgyeong Province.

北行百絶 북행백절 (其七 기칠)

One Hundred Poems on Travels in the North (7th Verse)

舂白趁虛市 용백진허시
殺靑充夜餐 살청충야찬
麥嶺斯難過 맥령사난과
如何又麥灘 여하우맥탄

Ripping the white, they go out to an empty market;
Erasing the blue (殺靑, 살청), they fill their nightly meal.
The barley hump (麥嶺, 맥령); this is difficult to pass by.
How can they again cross the barley rapids (麥灘, 맥탄)?

To rip • white • to proceed • empty • market
To erase • blue • to fill • night • meal
Barley • hump • this • difficult • to pass
Like • how • again • barley • rapids

每歲麥熟之時, 民食甚艱. 故謂之麥嶺, 言其難過也.
매세맥숙지시, 민식심탄, 고위지맥령, 언기난과야.

Every year, when the barley becomes ripe, the people’s food supply is very meager. Therefore, they call it “the barley hump” (보릿고개). This is to say that it is difficult to pass.

熟者舂而賣之市, 未熟者擣而炊之, 謂之殺靑.
숙자용이매지시, 미숙자도이취지, 위지살청. 

If it is ripe, they are cut and sold in the market. If unripe, they are cut and cooked by fire. This is called “erasing the blue” (殺靑, 살청).

Jeong Chobu (鄭樵夫, 정초부, 1714-1789)

Another poet that lived somewhat contemporaneously to Cho Susam was Jeong Chobu. Unlike most of the other poets who were originally of slave status, both his father and mother were slaves. He lived near modern day Sucheong-ri (水靑里, 수청리) near Yangpyeong (楊平, 양평) in Gyeonggi Province (京畿道, 경기도), just east of Seoul. There, Jeong Chobu worked in a household belonging to members of the Hamyang Yeo Clan (咸陽呂氏, 함양여씨) as a woodcutter slave, and hence his name. From an early age, his original master recognized his aptitude in memorizing Chinese characters and had him taught Confucian classics along with the other children. One of these children was Yeo Chunyeong (呂春永, 여춘영, 1734-1812), who was twenty years his junior and later became his master and friend. Recognizing his talent, Yeo Chunyeong distributed Jeong Chobu’s poetry around Seoul. Soon, he was composing Classical Chinese poetry shoulder to shoulder with some of the elite of the Chosun dynasty. Yeo Chunyeong also recognized the injustice of Jeong Chobu’s situation and eventually manumitted by burning his slave documents. Even afterward, Jeong Chobu lived a rather impoverished life, as he notes in his poem below.

山禽舊識山人面 산금구식산인면
郡藉今無野老名 군적금무야로명
一粒難分太倉粟 일랍난부태창속
江樓獨倚暮烟生 강루독의모연생

The mountain’s birds for long have recognized the mountain person’s face;
The bureaucratic office’s records today lack this countryside old man’s name.
Even for one seed of grain, it is difficult for them to share the large silo’s unhusked grain.
Alone leaning on the riverside loft, an evening smoke rises.

Mountain • birds • old • to recognize • mountain • person • face
District • records • today • to lack • countryside • old man • name
One • grain • difficult • to divide • large • storage • unhusked grain
River • loft • alone • to lean • evening • smoke • to form

  • 郡藉(군적) – Refers to the bureaucratic office in charge of records. It also distributed rice as aid to people who were recorded in the register that were in need of food. Since Jeong Chobu was freed, he was no longer on the register.

Jang Jiwan (張之琬, 장지완, 1806-?)

The 19th century saw a few poetry societies. One of them was the Biyeon Poetry Society (斐然詩社, 비연시사), named after the pen name (號, 호) of its leader, Jang Jiwan. The society consisted mostly members of the skilled middle class, and gathered at various scenic locations to write poetry. They were also actively involved in a movement to open up higher ranks of the Chosun bureaucracy to middle class (通淸運動, 통청운동), and in 1851 wrote a petition to the king asking him to do so. Their poems also on similar themes as the other non-gentry poetry societies, and described the lives of commoners. In the poem below, Jang Jiwan describes the modesty of women in a village in southern Gyeonggi Province (京畿道, 경기도).

南甸道中記見 남전도중기견

Recording What I Saw South of the Capital Province

山木蒼蒼鷄犬鳴 산목창창계견명
拄笻斜日問前程 주공사일문전정
村中少女太羞澁 촌중소녀태수삽
半掩紅裙背面行 반엄홍군배면행

The trees on the mountain are lush and thick; the rooster and the dogs make noise.
Being propped by a cane, as the sun wanes, I inquire amount the mileposts ahead.
In the middle of the village, the young woman is very uncomfortable and uneasy:
With her half-covered red skirt, she turns to her back and goes about.

Mountain • tree • thick • thick • rooster • dog • to sing
To prop • cane • to wane • sun • to ask • ahead • mileposts
Village • middle • young • woman • very • uncomfortable • uneasy
Half • to cover • red • skirt • to turn back • to face • to go

  • 南甸道(남전도) – Refers to being south of Seoul.

Gang Wi (姜瑋, 강위, 1820-1884)

Another poetry society was the Sixth Bridge Poetry Society (六橋詩社, 육교시사). Its members were centered around Gwanggyo (廣橋, 광교), the sixth bridge on Cheonggyecheon (淸溪川, 청계천). In the late 19th century Seoul, it was an area resided by doctors and translators, professions of the skilled middle class. They gathered at one another’s houses to compose poetry. The lead poet was Gang Wi, a Chinese classics scholar and reformer. His lineage was originally of the gentry class, but none of his ancestors had attained any bureaucratic titles since the middle period of the Chosun dynasty. He spent the earlier part of studies toward passing the civil service examination. Gang Wi, however, later decided to devote himself to studying Chinese classics under Min Nohaeng (閔魯行, 민노행, 1782-?), who was a scholar and advocate of the Confucian School of Evidentiary Thought (考證學, 고증학) and was consequently called a heretic (異端, 이단). (This is noted in the poem below.) After having visited China and Japan, he associated himself with Korean reformers and took to their causes. Gang Wi did so as a writer for the first Korean newspaper, the government-run Hanseong Sunbo (漢城旬報, 한성순보), founded in 1883. In the weekly newspaper, he proposed the abolition of special privileges for the gentry, advocated the wider use of the mixed script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용), and admonished readers about the precarious situation that the country faced. Gang Wi was also active in the Sixth Bridge Poetry Society, which he founded in the late 1870s. The society still met during the early years of the Japanese colonial period (日帝時代, 일제시대, 1905-1945).

老懷有難釋然者, 不已于言
로회유난석연자, 불기우언

Senile Thoughts That Are Difficult to Face, Told Without Stop

聞道苦難早 문도고난조
求師走八紘 구사주팔굉
天姿誠暗劣 천자성암렬
見處未分明 견처미분명
獨願遵詩禮 독원준시례
粗知畏法程 조지외법정
甘心居汚下 감심거오하
難受異端名 난수이단명

To hear the Way (道, 도) has been hard and difficult since when I was young.
In search of a teacher, I have run around in eight directions.
Heaven’s talents truly are absurd and inferior;
What I have seen is not clear or certain.
Alone, I wanted to excel in poetry and propriety;
Roughly, I knew that I should be afraid of its rules and orders.
With a joyous mind, I live in a dirty and low place.
But it is difficult to receive the title of “heretic.”

To hear • Way • painful • difficult • early
To seek • teacher • to run • eight • strings
Heaven • appearance • sincerely • dark • poor
To see • place • not yet • clear • bright
Alone • to want • to follow • poetry • rites
Roughly • to know • to fear • rules • methods
Joyful • heart • to reside • dirty • low
Difficult • to accept • different • end • name

  • 聞道(문도) – Allusion to a famous passage in the Analects (論語, 논어), Li Ren (里仁, 이인):

子曰: 朝聞道夕死可矣.
자왈: 조문도석사가의.

The Master said, “If in the morning I hear the Way, then at the night I will be alright with dying.”

  • 天姿(천자) – Refers to one’s innate characteristics.


Contrary to popular belief, literacy in Classical Chinese was not exclusive to the Yangban gentry. Beginning as early as the late 15th century, Classical Chinese started to proliferate to the lower classes. Many from the lower classes attempted to partake in and appreciate Chosun’s high culture. Moreover, some even railed against the class system as they aspired to join higher ranking bureaucratic positions. Thus, interest in Classical Chinese today should not be dismissed as elitist, as is too often seemingly the case. This post presented just a few of the poets from the lower classes.


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Should the US Retrench from South Korea, part 1: Yes

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This is a re-up of a debate couplet on the US position in South Korea, which I wrote for the Lowy Institute. Part one, the reasons for US retrenchment, is here (and below); part 2, the arguments against a US departure, is here. And that pic is me and my North Korean minder at the North Korea side of the DMZ. Note the KWP pin above his breast pocket.

Whether the US should stay or go is a perennial issue, that surprisingly, doesn’t get discussed much. This is probably because if you really supported a US withdrawal, you would not be taken seriously in much of US or Korean foreign policy establishments. US foreign policy is dominated by a hawkish, interventionist consensus of neocons and liberal internationalists for whom the US positions in Japan and Korea have become ends in themselves as symbols of US hegemony (in neocon-speak, that’s read as: ‘global basing means we’re f****** awesome!’). In tandem, the Korean discussion, for all its lazy anti-Americanism, assumes a permanent American presence to the point of irresponsibility. But all this misses the real hole at the center – the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the North Korean conventional threat (and before you say, ‘heh wait, they could blow up Seoul,’ recall that South Korea easily has the resources to ramp up in a big way; it just doesn’t do it).

The essay starts after the jump:


“Over at War on the Rocks, Christopher Lee, a former officer in the US Forces Korea (USFK), and Tom Nichols of the US Naval War College, have gotten into a useful debate on whether US forces should remain in Korea. This issue is not widely discussed – surprisingly, given the end of the Cold War and the huge margin of advantage in South Korea’s favor. Although I have taught international relations in South Korea for six years, this idea is almost never mooted in academia or the media here, so I applaud War on the Rocks for broaching it. But I think Lee and Tom (full disclosure: Tom Nichols and I are friends) have missed the strongest arguments for a pull-out. Specifically, I think Lee understates his case and Tom will have to work harder to justify staying – although I think it can be done. Today, I want to lay out a more robust case for departure; tomorrow I will lay out the counterargument. In brief, I think that the case for staying just barely clears the bar and that the tide is running against it.

Why could/should the US leave South Korea:

1. South Korea is free-riding. It only ‘needs’ the US, because it is doing less than it would otherwise.

Free-riding is controversial issue, one that has bedeviled all US alliances for many decades. An entire literature within international relations is built around the curious dynamics, such as ‘buck-passing’ or ‘reckless driving,’ that characterize allies’ efforts to shift burdens to other allies, or tie others unwittingly to their own national preferences. The most acute free-riding problem in the US alliance structure is in Europe. NATO informally benchmarks 2% of GDP as a minimum for members’ defense spending. Yet only four NATO states break that marker. This has systematically crippled NATO, forcing the US to take the lead on should-be-European contingencies such as the Balkans wars, Libya, and the Ukraine. Japan is even worse at less than one percent of GDP.

By contrast, South Korea spends 2.6% of GDP on defense. This sounds better, but unfortunately is far from enough given its security environment – the massive garrison state of North Korea sitting right on top of it. There is no formal spending target – USFK places no such demand on Seoul – but the number I hear widely thrown around is that without the US, South Korea would spend two or three times as much as it does on defense now. Every foreign security analyst I know in Korea thinks the RoK needs to spend a great deal more: South Korea has significantly under-invested in C4ISR, missile defense, and counter-insurgency tactics. It is woefully under-prepared to occupy North Korea. It does not draft women, despite a declining birth-rate that is leading to a major shrinkage in the ground force. With a GDP twenty-five to thirty times that of North Korea, and a population more than twice as large, South Korea has the room to make a far greater effort. Where Lee and Nichols spar over the small amount of money the US contributes to Southern defense, the real issue is getting South Korea to take its own defense far more seriously.

2. The US presence in Korea (and Japan) discourages Japan-South Korea rapprochement.

I have written about this issue several times (here and here). In brief, the US alliance almost certainly inhibits much needed cooperation between Japan and Korea on regional issues, most obviously China and North Korea. Specifically, the US alliance permits ‘moral hazard’ in both: neither Tokyo nor Seoul suffer any consequences for ridiculous criticisms of the other, because the US insures them both against the consequences. Hence Japan, and Korea especially, focus far too much attention on each other, and not nearly enough on the real regional threats. There is a great deal of agonizing in the US over how to get these two allies to bury the hatchet and start working together, but no one wants to admit the obvious solution – a genuine threat of abandonment. Hawks will disagree, and there are indeed downsides to abandonment, but let’s stop pretending that US regional alliances don’t have costs, such as this, either.

3. USFK’s presence ideologically props up North Korea.

One point that neither Lee nor Tom brought up is the obvious propaganda boon to North Korea of the US peninsular presence. Overlooking this is not uncommon. Most researchers on the North tend to assume that its ideology is a lot of empty talk, bunk to fill the airwaves, demonize Seoul, and so on. It is just a smokescreen over a degenerate, gangster-ocracy whose real ‘ideology’ is living the high life and hanging onto power by any means necessary. While the elite’s emptiness and cynicism is certainly clear, I think this is too easy. My own sense though – perhaps from having visited North Korea and been bombarded relentlessly there with ideology – is that ideology is actually very important. North Koreans are expected to attend ideology training ‘classes’ at least once a week, and more often for officials and higher-ups. The (North) Korean Central News Agency and the three newspapers of Pyongyang exert tremendous ‘intellectual’ effort on ideological reinforcement. The focus of that ideology, particularly since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, is anti-colonial nationalism, in which the United States has taken the place of the Japanese invader, and South Korea is the bastardized, globalized ‘Yankee Colony.’ An imminent American invasion symbolized by USFK is the primacy explanation of the regime to its people for their privation and the permanent national security emergency. Take that justification away, and North Korea loses its primary raison d’etre. If South Korea is no longer ‘occupied,’ then why does North Korea need to exist at all?

4. USFK’s persistence keeps China from cutting North Korea loose, which would accelerate Pyongyang’s collapse.

In the same way that USFK perversely acts as an ideological crutch for Pyongyang, so does it act as a reason for Beijing to endlessly prevaricate on North Korean bad behavior and unification. China is formally committed to Korean unification, but in practice this is a lie. Instead, the Chinese openly refer to North Korea as a ‘buffer’ between them and the robust democracies of South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Personally, I detest this logic; it suggests a breath-taking cynicism about the catastrophic human rights condition of North Korea. That China would callously instrumentalize a state that the UN recently likened to Nazi Germany is just appalling (and goes a long way to explaining way so few in Asia trust China). But that is the situation. However, were the US to retrench from South Korea, the Chinese fear of USFK on its doorstep would be alleviated. Indeed, South Korea could swap a USFK exit plus a promise of post-unification neutrality for a Chinese cut-off of aid to North Korea and pressure for unification. Hawks in the US and South Korea might not like that, but alleviating the extraordinary suffering of the North Koreans should be our primary goal here. If a USFK departure, tied to a major Chinese policy shift, could bring that about, it should be considered.

5. US is not an empire. Where it can retrench, it should. Commitments should not last indefinitely.

This is an openly normative argument. If one embraces a full-throated version of US hegemony – militarized, globalized, interventionist – then this will not appeal. But post-Iraq, there is clear public desire to rein in American interventions, and the normative case for restraint, on liberal democratic grounds, is strong. The costs of hegemony – not just financial, but the regular war-making and killing of foreigners; a sprawling, hugely intrusive national security state; domestic nativism; torture, indefinite detention, rendition, and similar penal abuses – suggest that retrenchment would be good for American democracy and liberalism. Allies may not like that. They will complain of abandonment. But sacrificing America’s liberal ideals at home to promote them abroad is strange brew. It is increasingly obvious that hegemony abroad is deleterious to American liberalism at home. Where allies can stand on their own, as South Korea very obviously can, US retrenchment would be domestically healthy.”

Filed under: Hegemony, Korea (North), Korea (South), United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University


Seoul's Video Game Alley

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Attention Gamers: IF you haven’t been to Video Game Alley yet- RUN THERE! Game consoles from every generation and games can be found here!

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Happy Market Monday! We’re back after a month of travel (videos and posts coming soon)!! Yesterday I headed back to the Electronics Market in Yongsan to purchase a card reader. Before heading that way I stopped in at a friends house. His beloved Xbox 360 had just stopped working so we decided to check out Video Game Alley and see if we could find him a new power brick. The unfortunate state of his Xbox lead us to explore another interesting specialty market in Seoul!


Many Games to choose from at Video Game Alley
Many Games to choose from at Video Game Alley

Video Game Alley is located directly past the electronics market. If you walk through the tunnel continue straight. You will see a giant PlayStation poster on your left hand side. Directly underneath it are some stairs with a red sign. Walk in and the down to the basement.



Nearly every gaming console that has ever been in existence can be found in the Alley with hundreds of games and accessories. I relived my childhood as I found a TV hooked up with Super Nintendo and played a few levels of Mario Brothers while a girl next to me used the gun accessory to play duck hunt.

Video Game Alley
Seoul, Korea


We were instantly able to find the Power Brick, along with several other models for other Xbox 360s, that we needed. The vendor that sold it to us was very helpful. Prior to coming we took a picture of the label and he made sure that the voltage was correct and it was the exact power cord we needed. The vendor was able to read our picture to determine the precise model required.


They also sold a number of bargain bin xbox 360/playstation games, including recent releases for only 9,800 won. Xbox 1 releases in Korea next month.


If you are into Video games I highly recommend making this trip!


Directions: Sinyongsan Station (Exit 5)

Walk straight through the underground tunnel, just to the north of Ipark Mall.

50m past the tunnel you will see a giant PlayStation billboard on your left.

Look for the Red sign underneath and go down the stairs into Video Game Alley


Woljeongsa Temple – 월정사 (Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do)

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The Nine-Tier Stone Pagoda at Woljeongsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Woljeongsa Temple, which is located in Odaesan National Park, means “Moon Vitality Temple,” in English. It was first founded in 643 C.E. by the famed master Jajang-yulsa. Like a lot of creation stories, Woljeongsa Temple has an interesting one of its own. Master Jajang was chanting in front of a stone statue of Munsu-bosal, hoping to see the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. On his seventh night of chanting, the Buddha gave Jajang a poem with four lines written in Sanskrit. The next day, a monk said to Jajang that he looked both pale and troubled. Jajang told this monk that he had received a poem that he couldn’t understand. The mysterious monk explained the poem to Jajang and told him to go to Mt. Odaesan, where he would find 10,000 Munsu-bosals. After seven more days, a dragon revealed itself to Jajang. The dragon told Jajang that the old monk he had formerly seen was in fact Munsu-bosal. The dragon went on to tell Jajang that Jajang now had to build a temple dedicated to this Bodhisattva. So in 643 C.E., Jajang reached Mt. Odaesan. However, when he arrived, Mt. Odaesan was covered in fog, so Jajang couldn’t see anything. During the three days that the mountain was covered, Jajang built a thatched hut that would eventually become the site for the future Woljeongsa Temple. More recently, Woljeongsa Temple was completely destroyed, all ten buildings in total, by the Korean Army during the Korean War (1950-53) because it had become a refuge for opposing forces.

Woljeongsa Temple is one of the most beautifully situated temples in Korea, and it becomes more and more obvious as soon as you approach the temple. You’ll first cross over a wide bridge whose rails are decorated with stone statues of the twelve zodiac generals. Finally on the other side, you’ll pass under the Boje-ru, which is adorned with various guardians like Heng and Ha, to gain access to the temple courtyard.

Straight ahead, you’ll immediately notice the nine-story, octagonal shaped, stone pagoda from the Goryeo Dynasty. The uniquely shaped pagoda is not only the main highlight to the temple, but it’s also National Treasure #48. Wind chimes hang on each corner of the pagoda, while a seated stone Bodhisattva is situated out in front making an offering. The original ancient stone Bodhisattva is now currently housed inside the temple museum, which is to the right when you immediately enter the temple courtyard. And to the left is the two-story bell pavilion.

Behind the nine-story stone pagoda is the temple’s main hall, which is framed on the other side by a grassy hill. The rather spacious interior is only occupied by a large sized solitary statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). The pillars that neighbour the statue of the Buddha are painted with interweaving dragons. As for the exterior walls, they are adorned with Shimu-do, Ox-Herding, murals.

To the left and rear of the main hall are four more shrine halls at Woljeongsa Temple. To the far left is the Sugwang-jeon, which houses a highly elaborate relief and statue dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This seated statue is joined on either side by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul).

Just to the right of this hall is the Samseong-gak, which houses three murals dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), and Chilseong (The Seven Stars). All three murals are beautiful, but perhaps the Chilseong painting is the most elaborate of the set. Just outside the entrance on the left-hand side to this hall is a mural of a tiger having a smoke with a rabbit. Have a look at this rather playful mural. The other two halls at the temple aren’t open to visitors; they are the Gaesanjo-gak and the Jinyeong-gak

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Woljeongsa Temple, you first need to get to Jinbu Intercity Bus Terminal. From this bus terminal, take a city bus bound for Woljeongsa Temple. This bus leaves 12 times a day, and the ride lasts 30 minutes in total. The bus will let you off just in front of the temple. You can take a bus, or you can simply take a taxi from the Jinbu Intercity Bus Terminal. The ride will last about 30 minutes, and it’ll cost you about 20,000 won.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10. Woljeongsa Temple is beautifully located in the folds of Odaesan National Park. Next to the setting, the main highlight to this historic temple is the nine-story stone pagoda that is National Treasure #48. Other things of note at the temple are the shaman murals housed inside the Samseong-gak and the original Bodhisattva making offerings to the pagoda inside the temple’s museum.


The road that leads up to Woljeongsa Temple.


The beautiful bridge that spans the neighbouring stream.


A better look across the zodiac laden bridge at the Boje-ru Pavilion.


The Boje-ru Pavilion that imposingly obscures the temple courtyard.


The temple’s bell pavilion.


The main hall and the nine-tier pagoda out in front.


A closer look at the hexagonal Goryeo Dynasty pagoda.


And a look at the Bodhisattva out in front of the pagoda.


A look inside the main hall at Woljeongsa Temple.


The shrine halls to the rear of the main hall with the Samseong-gak to the far left.


The Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) mural inside the Samseong-gak.


A look up at the Sugwang-jeon.


A look inside at Amita-bul on the main altar.

The post Woljeongsa Temple – 월정사 (Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do) appeared first on Dale's Korean Temple Adventures.

Reading List: The Pollen of Flowers and The Subversive Strain in Modern Korean Films

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Adam Nicholson at All Over Korea wrote an article recently on The Pollen of Flowers (화분), which is apparently one of the first films to contain a gay relationship in Korean film. The film sounds disturbingly violent. Do not expect a loving homosexual relationship. After reading his article, I recommend checking out Susan Menadue-Chun's The Subversive Strain Strain in Modern Korean Films. While doing her master's at the University of Sydney, she wrote this piece which gives a good outline of the laws censoring and/or promoting domestic films under various Korean administrations as well as introducing the Pollen of Flowers and other films that had themes which challenged repressive regimes.

If either of these pieces pique your interest in the film, Pollen of Flowers is available at the Korean Movie Database. With a free membership, you can watch a bunch of films online. KMDB also made The Pollen of Flowers available on youtube.

Parade Celebrating 20 Years of Chingusai (Between Friends)

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If you missed gay pride this June or are in need of a second parade, come out to Jongno tomorrow to celebrate 20 years of Chingusai (one of Korea's gay rights groups).

The parade starts at 7 o'clock in Jongno 3 Ga. You will have a chance to chat with people who work at Chingusai as well as learn more about the organization. 

From 6 o'clock the organization is asking for your opinions in their office and from 6:45 pm in front of the Chingusai Office they will explain the parade route and method. To get to the Chingusai Office, go out exit 8 and cross the street. At 7 pm, the parade starts and from 7:30 pm there will be a birthday party for the organization. From 8 pm, fun!

You can take pictures and videos. People who purposefully distort images of the gay community will be actively prosecuted by Chingu Sai. 

Sampling Seoul: A Night Dining Tour with O'ngo Food Communications

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Korean cuisine, much like the country's people, is vibrant, flavorful, eclectic and packs a lot of punch. It's so diverse that it would take years to try each banchan (side dish), variety of kimchi (there's over 200!) and regional and seasonal specialty. Fortunately for gastronomes eager to sample Korea's tastiest cuisine in a limited amount of time, O'ngo Food Communications offers a number of food tours that take all the guesswork out of the search for the country's best restaurants.

This week, I joined O'ngo on their highly popular Korean Night Dining Tour, an activity that consistently ranks in the top 5 list of things to do in Seoul on TripAdvisor.  After meeting my tour mates- a diverse group of friendly Singaporeans, Germans and Australians- and our enthusiastic local guide Gemma, we hit the streets of Jongno with our mouths watering and our bellies growling.

From the get go, Gemma gave us fun tidbits about the landmarks we passed and the streets we wandered, including Galmaegisal-gil, the first stop on our tour. This street, a cramped alley of tiny restaurants, smoking grills and boisterous businessmen perched on plastic chairs downing soju, was incredibly picturesque and captured the true essence of the city.

We took our seats at an unassuming corner restaurant, the first in the city to serve galmaegisal, pork skirt steak. The table had already been prepared for our group, and the servers were kind enough to do the cooking for us, a big plus for foreigners less versed in the art of table grilling. Gemma explained how to wrap the perfectly cooked pork in mustard greens and sesame leaves, adding just the right amount of mung bean and sesame powders, salt, and ssamjang (dipping sauce), all the while devouring it in one bite.

Suddenly, the entire table was quiet as we stuffed our mouths with the deliciousness that is ssam (lettuce wraps). But, the silence wouldn't last long, as Gemma didn't waste any time in serving us cojinganmek, a "bomb" shot of Coca-Cola, soju, and beer. We were all a bit flushed and full by the end of the meal, but it was soon off to the next stop.

Weaving through Insadong's alleys, we found ourselves at a hidden tteokbokki joint. The rice cake snack we sampled was a twist on the original, and rather than being spicy, was sweet and soupy, and was mixed in with carrots and fish cakes in a soy-based broth. Although I still prefer the original, it was nice to try something new. We slurped up the tasty dish, and washed it down with few shots of maehwasu, Korean plum liquor.

We managed not to stumble to our next destination, a pojangmacha, or tent bar. Gemma explained to us that these quintessentially Korean drinking establishments are expected to be extinct within the next ten years, as the government has been doing away with them, firmly believing their existence tarnishes Korea's image as a clean and forward-moving society. (They've yet to understand the fact that they're one of the favorite places of foreign tourists and residents to experience the country's culture.)

We may have looked a bit out of place to the elderly gentlemen that surrounded us, but we were welcomed with smiles and hospitality. Despite the warm summer weather, the generous portions of dakbokkeumtang, or spicy braised chicken stew, hit the spot and was the perfect companion for the somaek (beer and soju cocktail) that Gemma so impressively whipped up for us. By this point, we had all bonded, not necessarily because of the alcohol, and were having a great time exchanging funny travel stories and telling jokes.

It didn't take long to reach Gwangjang Market, one of Seoul's oldest and most famous traditional markets, particularly popular for its food. The market was packed and scents of fermenting seafood, fried goodies and spilled alcohol permeated throughout. We were led to a three-story restaurant and were quickly served up plates of bindaekduk (crispy savory pancakes) and mixed jeon (fried veggies, meat and seafood). By this point, I wished I had worn elastic pants but still managed to shovel down a few bites. Gemma poured us bowls of makgeolli (Korean rice beer) and taught us a few basic drinking games. We couldn't stop laughing at our ineptitude to play, yet were still probably the tamest group in the entire place.

After a night of drinking games, wandering Seoul's streets, meeting new friends and gorging on the city's tastiest treats, we parted ways. Half of the group headed out to Dongdaemun for some late-night shopping while the rest of us, practically in food comas, went home. 

Overall, I was extremely impressed with O'ngo's Korean Night Dining Tour. Even after living in Seoul for five years, I was introduced to neighborhoods I had never visited and dishes I had never tried. The guide was fun and helpful, the tour well-structured and organized, and the price excellent for the value. It's the perfect tour for those wanting to make the most of a short trip in Seoul, but is also fun for long-term expats like myself looking to learn more about the hidden gastronomic gems of the city.

Photo courtesy of Chang Thuy.

More Information

The Korean Night Dining Tour runs daily at 6PM and is three and a half hours long. The tour begins at the O'ngo Culinary School, located just a few minutes' walk from Insadong. The cost is $88 USD per person and there are discounted rates for those not drinking alcohol, kids, and groups of eight or more. For more information about O'ngo or to make a reservation for this food tour, click here and fill out the form.

*Although this post is sponsored by O'ngo Food Communications, the opinions are, of course, my own. 

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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