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Bibimbap (비빔밥) is what I often share with people as their first...

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Bibimbap (비빔밥) is what I often share with people as their first venture into Korean food (also anglicized as bi bim bap or bi bim bop). The word literally means “mixed rice.” 

Traditionally, it’s served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste), soy sauce, or doenjang (a fermented soybean paste). A raw or fried egg and sliced meat (usually beef) are common additions. The hot dish is stirred together thoroughly just before eating. 

In South Korea, the cities, Jeonju, Jinju, and Tongyeong are especially famous for their versions of bibimbap. I’ve seen many different combinations and types of rice used. With fusion food, the possibilities are endless! I say throw together whatever you like and eat.


About 

Hi, I'm Stacy. I'm from Portland, Oregon, USA, and am currently living in Busan, South Korea. Check me out on: Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Lastfm, and Flickr.

 


The decadence of “white boy/girl” problems.

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There’s a mutation in the latte wielding left’s discourse, a phraseology new to this six-year long expat, and it’s more decadent than a Cinnabon/coke combo at the connection airport. Here’s a bite: “Oh I know…(its my) white boy problems” or the “yeah….white girl issues..I know”, among other similar sentiments. What to make of this curious new flourish in mainstream American discourse, which agonized my soul’s stomach on several different occasions during my summer’s re-acquaintance?

The “they” opposed to the “we” of the “white-boy/girl” implied in this methane ass cloud of self-indulgence has expanded out to include all minorities regardless of their “first, second, or third world” (an obsolete metric, if it were ever cogent) status. Simultaneously, the rectal offenders insinuate that all white people suffer from this decadent state of affairs, regardless of how many ironic tattoos they don’t have.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on these flatchulators. We know that they’re not referring to any real problems after all. The “white girl/boy” affixed to the word “issues” or “problems” is meant to denote triviality. That is, at best they’re lamenting on the trivial decisions of their privileged life, but at worst are backhandedly gloating about the agony that they can’t go yachting because they have to attend that wine mixer! I surmise most of these rectal offenders are somewhere between these two poles. What I am pointing out however, and perhaps you’re feeling it now, is the growing nausea in the middle American stomach…like from having too much cake. Have we (humans) become so shamelessly decadent that its now acceptable to voice disingenuous suffering for fake problems?

Not all white people have “white people” issues, and to insinuate such a thing is not only alienating, but also denies the dignity, and understanding of the very real socio-economic problems white people in America face. And perhaps they’re attempting empathy with non-white strugglers? However, such wafts off ass in the form of feigning humility serves only to sacrifice the self-respect and dignity of its speaker, and can be smelled a mile away.

If indeed you feel guilty for your privilege, that’s your cross to bare if you so choose to wear it. As a non-white American, I’d think it more worthwhile to use your position to give a hand to others, to help effectuate a more even playing field, to elect people that will help bring more equality to a system that is empirically tilted.

Uttering such non-sensical phraseology distorts class divisions, perpetuates race struggles, and serves only to prolapse even more the privileged white anuses of those who accrete the desire to appear more sophisticated, or part of the more “woke” mainstream. But in reality they are seen clearly by the rest of us, sipping on farts in their champagne flutes at their mixers via images increasingly brought to us via media.

get-out-watching-recommendation-videoSixteenByNine768

And its making America twitchy…

 



Asking Koreans if Korean is Difficult to Learn | 한국어가 배우기 어려운 이유

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As an English speaker, Korean is considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. Anyone who's studied Korean can tell you this: it takes a lot of time and effort to learn. But I wondered what Korean people thought about their language. Would Koreans think that their language was difficult to learn... or even easy to learn?

The two questions that I asked them specifically were these: “한국어가 배우기 어려운 언어라고 생각하세요?” (“Is Korean a difficult language to learn?”), and “한국어를 배우는 사람들에게 응원의 말 부탁 드릴게요.” (“Any words of encouragement for people who are learning Korean?”).

The post Asking Koreans if Korean is Difficult to Learn | 한국어가 배우기 어려운 이유 appeared first on Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean.


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5FootWay.Inn Project Boat Quay – Singapore’s Stylish Hostel

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5FootWay.Inn Singapore Boat Quay Toronto Seoulcialite Luxury Hostel Review

5FootWay.Inn Project Boat Quay Singapore

A terrace with a view overlooking the Singapore river, a magnificent view of Marina Bay Sands, and an endless supply of coffee?  5FootWay.Inn Project Boat Quay in Singapore made some big promises!  Located splat in between the Clarke Quay and Raffles Place MRT stations, this luxury hostel is the most convenient location in Singapore.  5FootWay.Inn has locations all over Singapore, but we were lucky enough to be able to walk everywhere from this beautiful riverside location!

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Getting to 5FootWay.Inn Singapore Boat Quay

We took the shuttle from Singapore Changi Airport, which was actually the most convenient thing about the airport!  We only waited about 15 minutes from our bus to be ready and paid $9 (Singaporean) each for our one-way ticket.  If you take a GrabCar, however, you’re looking at about $22.  Still pretty cheap!  I couldn’t believe the phenomenal view of Marina Bay Sands (affectionately called the “Singapore Surfboard” during our stay) and the Singapore skyline.

5FootWay.Inn Singapore Boat Quay Toronto Seoulcialite Luxury Hostel Review 5FootWay.Inn Singapore Boat Quay Toronto Seoulcialite Luxury Hostel Review 5FootWay.Inn Singapore Boat Quay Toronto Seoulcialite Luxury Hostel Review

Checking in @ 5FootWay.Inn Project Boat Quay

We were warmly welcomed by the front desk staff who seemed genuinely happy to be our first friendly faces in Singapore!  Check-in is from 3 PM onward.  Check-out is by 12 PM.  We were shown to our triple occupancy private room after a quick tour of the maze-like hallways, kitchen, and Gallery 76.  The hostel has different areas with very different vibes – all of them artistic.  The common area by reception has comfy couches and plays movies from time to time.  The self-serve check-in area is dark and brooding with these cool caged lights and information on a chalkboard wall.  I liked the vibe immediately!

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5FootWay.Inn 3-Person Private Room

Our triple room at 5FootWay.Inn actually only had 2 beds, which kind of surprised me as it’s billed as a 3-person room.  It was only the two of us, so it kind of made it fair that the person with the bigger bed had to climb up a few stairs.  Each bed had 2 electrical outlets and a reading light.  While I brought along a convertible plug, I was happy that my Korean chargers fit in the multi-use outlet.  My only suggestion about this room would be to give easier access from the outlets to the mirror.  2 people getting ready for a night out at the same time was nearly impossible.  Had we been a full room of 3 it would have been a very tough time!  If you have have booked a private room, you’ll receive complimentary towels.

Standard Quad Room

Shared Bathroom

5FootWay.Inn Dormitories

We didn’t actually stay in the dorms, however the picture from the website of our room was nearly identical to the one I took.  I would assume that the dorm beds are similar to the single bed in our room.  It was pretty comfortable and had good air conditioning.  I always like to stay in the dorms when traveling by myself.  It’s a great way to meet new people!  The dormitory beds come with private lockers, electrical sockets and reading lights as well.  Towels also available (upon request) at the reception at a for $2 per piece.

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Night Views from Gallery 76 @ 5FootWay.Inn Project Boat Quay

The view of the restaurant and bar-dotted Singapore River from 5FootWay.Inn was mesmerizing.  The water reflected the lights along the river and was punctuated by the glow of Marina Bay Sands all lit up at night.  We popped into Japanese places, Korean Chicken and Beer Restaurants, and Tapas bars all within walking distance of the hostel.  My favorite view was from Gallery 76 – a photo gallery displaying stunning and impactful black and white images by photojournalist Edwin Koo.  We met some new Korean friends on our second night and practiced our language skills while enjoying a local brew!

Vibe @ 5FootWay.Inn Project Boat Quay Singapore

There seemed to be a ton of hostel-organized opportunities to venture out into Singapore with new friends from the hostel. Most people kept to themselves, which was interesting as the hallways were pretty consistently noisy!  5FootWay.Inn hostel is also child-friendly.  I’ve never seen a child in a hostel.  It came as a bit of a surprise to see families wandering about!  Kids 2-12 years old are only allowed to stay in private rooms.  “Children over 12 years old are considered adults and standard policies apply to them.”  The hostel was within about 20 minutes of Kampong Glam/ Haji Lane (the Malaysian district), Little India, Chinatown (where all the great hawker stalls are found), Clarke Quay, Merlion Park, and Marina Bay Sands.  We walked almost everywhere!  We went back at the hostel to rest and recharge our literal and figurative batteries only.

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Breakfast at 5FootWay.Inn Project Boat Quay

Complimentary breakfast at a hostel is fairly unusual!  It was great to see a full kitchen of travelers grabbing coffee, cereal, toast, jam, peanut butter, and fruit before starting their day.  The kitchen, terrace, and beautiful common area overlooking the river is so inviting during the day or at night!

5FootWay.Inn Singapore Boat Quay Toronto Seoulcialite Luxury Hostel Review

Contact 5FootWay.Inn & Singapore Hostel Discount Code

5footway.inn Project Boat Quay
76 Boat Quay
Singapore
049864

Thanks to the team at 5FootWay.Inn for their hospitality.  They’re even passing some savings on to you!  While this article has been written in partnership, all reviews are honest and opinions are my own.   Use promo code “TTS10” when e-mailing marketing@5footwayinn.com to book your stay.  This code is valid for booking and staying at 5FootWay.Inn before March 2018!

The post 5FootWay.Inn Project Boat Quay – Singapore’s Stylish Hostel appeared first on The Toronto Seoulcialite.


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Fashion Icons At The U.S. Open

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There may not be a sport as closely tied to fashion as tennis. Okay, so NBA basketball players have gotten some attention of late for some incredibly eccentric looks, and that’s fun. But professional tennis players, particularly on the women’s side, often show off looks that people will actually want to imitate. Sometimes they do it through the athletic wear they bring to the courts, and sometimes they show up looking effortlessly glamorous at side events, or even in interviews following their matches. Fashion is something a lot of WTA tennis players take pride in, and with the U.S. Open now underway we thought we’d highlight some of the icons in the sport.

Truth be told, even if sports aren’t your thing this tournament is worth keeping one eye on. Particularly during the evening matches, A-list celebrities have been known to show up looking their best. It’s a good event at which to follow styles. But, we digress. Here are a few of the leading ladies of tennis you may want to watch for if you decide to tune in during the two weeks of Open action.

Maria Sharapova

Arguably the biggest fashion icon in tennis, Sharapova has been absent from her sport for a while due to a suspension. But she’s back, and is actually being given a decent chance to win by the oddsmakers. No matter how she does on the courts however, Sharapova is one to watch for fashion. She tends to go with fairly simple athletic looks, but is known for making more of a statement at appearances beyond them. Whether it’s jumping in on last summer’s gladiator sandal trend or sporting tasteful but elegant dresses in the fall, she’s just one of those celebrity figures who always looks her best. Her wardrobe tends to be terrific inspiration.

Venus Williams

Venus and her little sister Serena both get a lot of attention for their fashion, both on and off the court. In fact not long ago Venus was even the focus of an article on October fashions hitting the court. She’s often in the spotlight for her look, though it should be noted that she’s pretty unpredictable in this regard. She certainly likes to experiment, often with bold color patterns and sometimes even with creative touches like unexpected shoes or dyed hair. Venus is a wildcard, but there’s often something kind of brilliant about what she comes up with, so keep an eye on her as well.

Caroline Wozniacki

Wozniacki is somewhat like Sharapova in that she seems to be effortlessly fashionable. Just this summer, she wore a designer dress sponsored by Adidas while competing at Wimbledon, which should give you an idea of her general fashion-forward attitude. Wozniacki also happens to be one of the WTA’s more accessible players when she’s not competing. She always seems to be up for an interview and is always friendly, smiling, and in style. You may well get a good look at her wearing something besides her tennis dress if you tune in for the Open, as she’s one of the likelier candidates to make it to a TV desk for an interview.

It’s hit or miss as far as what you’ll see these women wearing during the tournament. But they’re all wonderful to watch, and if you like taking your inspiration from athletes or celebrities anyway, you might consider doing a bit of research on their respective fashion backgrounds. You may just land on some interesting ideas!

 

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The post Fashion Icons At The U.S. Open appeared first on That Girl Cartier.


Amazing Day Trips to Take Outside of Seoul

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Seoul is a fantastic city. There are plenty of places open around the clock, new cafes and restaurants popping up around the corner every week, almost seemingly unlimited shopping opportunities all across the city, and simply so much exploring to do that even the thought of winding up bored here doesn’t cross your mind.

 

But as great of a place as Seoul is, sometimes your heart and soul simply are begging for a short escape from the bustling big city life. You might begin to dream of hopping on the next train to Busan, you might long for your hometown, or you might even be making fictional plans to get your bum to the beaches in Jeju. However, oftentimes you might be too pressed for time or money to do any of those things, and so you look for an alternative that’s accomplishable within one day. Lucky for you, Seoul’s surroundings – and Korea in general – offers a vast amount of fun day trips for you to go on, no matter the season. Here are some great day trips outside of Seoul for you to consider!

 

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Everland (& Caribbean Bay)

Within an easy bus ride away – and accessible by subway as well – is a glorious amusement park, home to one of the greatest roller coasters you’ll ever ride, not to mention a wonderful variety of other fun rides and activities. It’ll easily take you a day to plow through the massive area and can be enjoyed 365 days out of the year. And, if you really want to make it a day trip, why not spend the earlier part of the day in the water park called Caribbean right next door, and then head over to Everland for the afternoon and evening?

 

An Itty Bitty Incheon Tour

Why not hop on the subway and take it all the way to the end of line 1 on Incheon’s end for a day trip for some of the sights in the neighboring city? Incheon is surprisingly big and difficult to cover all of it in one day, but visiting Chinatown and Fairytale Village, located side by side to each other, is definitely one of the highlight options. And once you’ve snapped a ridiculous amount of pictures at the Fairytale Village, and filled your tummy with yummy in Chinatown, hop on a bus or a taxi to get to Wolmido, an easily accessible island nearby, famous for its small theme parks.

 

Asan Blue Crystal Village (jijunghaemaeul, 지중해마을)

Asan Blue Crystal Village

Photo Credit: Laura Toyryla

This little spot in the middle of the town of Asan is a hidden gem of sorts. You won’t often find it on lists like these, and it’s unknown to a lot of Koreans as well. It might take a bit of time out of your day to get to if you don’t time yourself right, as the bus from nearby Asan Station (line 1 on the Seoul subway line) to the village only runs once in an hour, but you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. It’ll feel like you’ve just stepped outside of Korea, and landed somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea cities, with vast options of restaurants and cafes around you to keep you well-fed and hydrated as you snap a million pictures of the gorgeous architecture you’ve suddenly found yourself surrounded by.

 

Gapyeong, Chuncheon, and Their Surroundings

Garden Of Morning Calm

Photo Credit: Laura Toyryla

Only some of Gapyeong and Chuncheon’s great finds are within the access of a train from Seoul, but local buses will get you from point A to point B just fine. If you go during the summer, you should get off the train at Cheongpyeong or one of its nearby stations, and spend some time by the lake having fun with water rides such as water ski or banana boat, but excluding the lake, the area is a great destination for a day trip any time of the year. Gapyeong has many great pensions for group of friends and for couples, as well as Garden of the Morning Calm. Meanwhile, Chuncheon has the best chicken ribs (dakgalbi, 닭갈비) you can find in all of Korea, and the gorgeous Nami Island, plus Petite France and rail bikes. However, if you want to do ALL of that in one fell swoop, you might want to make it a weekend trip instead.

 

Jeonju

If you wish to travel just a bit further from Seoul, Jeonju is a great option for a place that can be explored in one day. If you go in early July, you might visit DeokJin Park for its lotus flowers. Otherwise, most of what you’ll want to see is right at the Jeonju Hanok Village! You can rent a traditional hanbok to strut the streets for a day, you can try local makgeolli (막걸리), you can visit one of the many cute cafes and restaurants, and if you climb up the small hill close by, you’ll even get a view of the whole hanok village at once. Isn’t that a nifty day trip itinerary or what?!  

 

West Coast and East Coast Beaches

Sokcho Beach

Photo Credit: Laura Toyryla

During the summer season, one of your favorite activities just might be hitting the beaches, whether to swim or just to suntan. South Korea’s beaches might have nothing on those you could find in many places in South East Asia, but for East Asia they’re quite nice. Especially Sokcho on the East Coast, and Daecheon Beach on the West Coast are within easy access to you from the bus terminals of Seoul, if wearing a bathing suit for a few hours is on your list of things you wish to do. Unlike in the West, it’s almost customary in Korea to keep a t-shirt over your swimsuit or bikini or swim trunks – however, don’t let that scare you from showing the world the new bathing suit you got for just this trip, nobody will judge you harshly for it. Besides sun tanning and swimming, you may also want to try the water activities such as banana boat, which are available by almost every public beach. Also, do keep in mind that renting a parasol will cost you money, and a majority of the beaches do not have beach chairs to lay on. Lastly: do keep tabs of when the beaches are open for swimming, as beaches such as Sokcho Beach might only be available for swimming for a short period of time in the summer.

 

Now that we’ve laid down a bunch of day trip options for you, we’re dying from the curiosity know where you’ll next be headed to! Aren’t you just itching to have go on more outside of Seoul day trips? What are your favorite day trips in Korea? Let us know in the comments below!

*While waiting for your next adventure, you may want to partake in the fun 90 Minute Korean Alphabet Challenge

 

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SPARKLE PLENTY

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As kids, we usually don’t second guess adults. We pretty much take them at their word, which makes sense, since they’ve put in the time, and (in theory) have amassed the necessary knowledge. Sometimes they get it wrong, but when we’re young we generally view adults as infallible. It wasn’t until my teens that I began to question the wisdom of this arrangement, and by my late twenties I came to understand that as adults, we definitely don’t have it figured out. In fact, we’re just making it all up as we go along and hoping for the best. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

But I was a nice boy, or at least I tried to be. My mom taught me that I could do anything in life, and really, was she so wrong? I was a middle class white American kid who believed in the goodness of it all—a God-believing, Uncle Sam-loving Boy Scout–so the deep-pumped optimism of Reagan’s America was a well that I was more than happy to sup from. Why question something that tasted so good? So when Suzie told us that we were going to Broadway, I believed her. We all did. After all, everything we did was extraordinary, wasn’t it?

At least that’s how Suzie framed things. She was on a nonstop mission to convince us that we were somehow touched by the stars, special and then some. She cultivated an environment of breathy possibility in which we were far more than just some kids performing schmaltzy musicals in some suburban summer drama program. She had us believing that true talent was coursing through our veins, and that that meant something. We all were little supernovas in the making, but only through her guidance and tutelage could we turn this raw electricity into something shimmering and remarkable, something powerful, something that would take us from the shabby auditorium of a local high school all the way to those legendary, storied boards of the New York theater. The big time, baby! We were lightning in a bottle, and she was determined to unleash us upon the world.

At least this is how it all seemed, at the time.

In reality, Suzie was just a kid herself, a calf-eyed twenty-three year-old who’d recently graduated from the University of Washington’s undergraduate drama program. She was a pretty, magnetic young woman with wavy blond locks who had also done a two-year stint as a Seattle Seahawks cheerleader. This only served to elevate her stock, especially among us budding, pubescent boys who all but drooled in her presence. The fact that she often conducted the more physical of our drama exercises wearing nothing more than the second skin of a leotard just added to her considerable allure (this was the 1980’s after all). Over time I came to memorize the supple contours of her body, and have to give her at least partial credit her for my own sexual awakenings. Not every teenage boy gets to gaze upon the splayed-out, be-spandexed form of a professional cheerleader day-in and day-out at his summer drama day camp. This vision was a fruit that I came to savor.

But first, the backstory:

I had come to Suzie through her mother, Barb, who was my elementary school music teacher, though her job title never adequately described what a force of nature she was in so many of our lives. She taught us much more than quarter notes, rests, and the difference between brass and woodwinds. She also produced and directed musicals, which soon become the highlight of my school year.

The formula was simple: she would take a well-known story such as “The Wizard of Oz” or “Pinocchio,” cobble together a script that would make use of scores of kids, and then lift famous songs (royalty-free!) from Broadway musicals (or any other convenient sources) and throw them into the mix. She’d send costume instructions home for the mothers to put together or sew, and a few of the fathers would come in on weekends and slap up a basic set in the school’s gymnasium. We’d rehearse the play for a few weeks after school, and then perform the whole thing a handful of times for family, students, faculty, and any anyone else in the community. The result was a sprawling, spirited pastiche that employed the effort of well over a hundred people, resulting in a standing room only gym for each performance. It was heady, spectacular stuff for a grade-school kid, and once I got a taste of it playing Michael in “Peter Pan,” I was hooked. I discovered the naked thrill that is a packed room delivering big laughs and applause my way. It was a straight whap to the veins, and a performance junkie was born.

One of the things that made these shows so successful was Barb’s own expertise. Before getting into teaching, she had worked professionally as a stage actress and had the chops to prove it. She had a big, brassy Broadway voice and could rip up a dance number with lightning bolts of old-school razzmatazz. She was an aging beauty who could blind the room with her smile, though she also possessed the no-nonsense demeanor so common to women of that generation. Perhaps the most endearing trait of all of those people who lived through the war years was this no-time-for-bullshit attitude. And Barb, for all of her showbizzy airs, had it in spades. She may have been able to belt out a tune or do a shuffle step in heels, but she kept a clear head and suffered no fools.

Barb, or Mrs. Massey, as we called her, knew her stuff and imparted it to all of us. We learned basic stagecraft, vocal projection, breathing techniques, and most importantly, how to sing. She taught us to blast out a song to the back of the house without shredding our vocal chords (it’s all in the diaphragm, folks), and how to visualize coming in on top of a note to avoid sounding flat. She drilled this into all of her students, especially those of us who performed in the annual musical, so by the time Suzie started her own program, she already had a troupe of kids who had been properly trained in the fundamentals of performance, as well as professionalism, a concept that Barb took very seriously. This gave us all a leg up when it came time to put together a show, and no doubt helped to fuel our collective sense of grandeur.

Inspired by her mom’s success at the elementary school, Suzie started the Kids’ Performance Workshop (KPW) in the summer of 1982 as part of her senior project at the university.  Barb served as musical director and acting coach and for six straight weeks, a group of about forty kids learned drama exercises, dance, and singing from the two, culminating a fully-staged musical, using Barb’s tried and tested formula of banging out a script and lifting songs that fit.

I gave that first year a skip, choosing to attend Boy Scout camp instead, but I was in the next year, where I graced the stage as a tap-dancing Fedora-topped orphan smuggler in KPW’s production of “Heidi of the Alps.” The year after I played the invented role of villainess Morgan Le Fay’s right hand man in a version of “Camelot” featuring no less than three young King Arthurs vying for the the throne (spreading the love through casting was a hallmark of KPW). And then came “Galaxy Theatre.”

This was different. This was not going to be some kiddy show tacked onto the end of a 6-week KPW program, but rather an original musical, a fully-financed professional endeavor featuring the ensemble of kids Suzie and Barb had cultivated over the preceding years, with the goal of reaching the Great White Way. Suzie looked to the success of “Annie,” which was tearing up Broadway box office receipts in the early 80’s as the model. “Annie” had proven that a show largely performed by children could hit the heights, and Suzie was convinced that she had the collective talent and singular vision to pull the whole thing off.

The lion’s share of this dream rested on the shoulders of an explosively talented sixteen year-old named Alex Pippen. Alex had been “discovered” by Barb some years earlier and she quickly took him under her wing for development. He had played and sung the role of Peter in that seminal production of “Peter Pan” to great acclaim. Alex was a whiz, a musical prodigy with a soaring, pitch-perfect voice, backed up with crazy skills on the piano. “Genius” was the word freely tossed around at the time. The kid was an absolute natural and Suzie knew this. Alex was her ticket to big time. so she hitched her trailer to his souped-up engine and just went for it.

So in the year leading up to that summer of ‘85, she gave him the directive to compose songs. A mountain of songs. She would handle the lyrics and book (musicalese for “script), but Alex the Teenager was wholly responsible for the score–every single note played and sung in a grand musical that had serious aspirations for a Broadway run. Though a seemingly Sisyphean task, Alex Pippen managed to open a hole in his soul and deliver that score on time. To this day I still don’t know how he pulled it off. Was it the raw inspiration of youth? Pure talent? Or coercion?  Most likely it was a combination of all three, since I knew very well the frightening scope of his ability (off-the-charts talent often intimidates), but later learned that at least on one occasion Suzie sat Alex down at the piano, carefully cracked open a can of Coke, placed it nearby, and said that he was welcome to leave the room only after he finished writing the song in question. She then sauntered out and locked the door. From the outside.


Alex’s talent and youthful verve guaranteed that the songs would be good enough to propel this whole vehicle along, but a musical is just a collections of ditties without a decent script and story to hold the whole thing together. The frame and the glue. This, along with the actual lyrics was Suzie’s charge. She responded by producing a sprawling script in which ten random “street kids” take refuge in an abandoned theater during a storm. This idea had been inspired by some volunteer had done at a center for homeless teens in Seattle during her college years. Now, this was a real issue, as Seattle was a proper magnet for runaways. Street kids were an actual thing there, though Suzie’s own very white, suburban upbringing gave her little perspective to tackle this issue with real understanding and empathy. Though she longed to help, to “raise consciousness,” she could hope for little more than to come across as a well-intentioned white savior who had no real clue about the reality of life of the streets. The result was a script with the tone and class understanding of an After School Special. Yes, she meant well, but  the whole thing was just dripping with Pollyanna-esque tendencies. She just couldn’t help herself.


But this was the 80’s and cynicism was not something found with frequency in the mainstream. Unbridled optimism was the name of the game. Reagan and crew were embracing a return to the can-do idealism of the 1950’s, and it was largely working. We were living in Lacey, a suburb bordering the town of Olympia, the state capital. Lacey was little more than a mall, a strip of fast food joints, soul crushing, beauty bark-ringed “office parks,” a couple of big grocery stores, and outlying cul-de-sac developments. While some of these neighborhoods–like the one Suzie hailed from– featured lakefront views and private docks–the rest of Lacey’s residents were consigned to subdivisions that ranged from wide-lawned, middle class edens, to swaths of depressing future meth holes. And that’s not even counting the trailer parks, which were the dominant housing schemes in my neck of the woods,. Lacey, outside of the money on the lakes, was largely considered to be Olympia’s northern white trash sister.

But even then this wasn’t so accurate a portrait of perpetually misunderstood Lacey. Sure, a lot of the whites who lived in the “town” were poor and trashy, but this characterization ignored the fact that a goodly percentage of Laceyites weren’t even white. Washington was by and large a white state at the time, but Lacey’s relative diversity betrayed this reality. Much of this had to do with its proximity to Fort Lewis and McChord AFB, the largest military installation in the in the state, and no institution reflects the reality of America’s demographics better than our armed forces. The result was that Lacey looked nothing like lilly white Olympia, or even Tumwater, the true white trash sibling to the south. Lacey, instead, was a community of military families and others, and YPW always reflected this. The core members were white, black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, with mixes in between. Suzie and Barb drew from these communities of color not out of some liberal guilt (Barb, at least, was a stalwart Republican), but only because these black and brown kids were more than happy to commit to the program and give it everything they had. The fact that so many of them were bursting with talent didn’t hurt things either.  

The fact that the kids of YPW were largely drawn from the lower class must not have been lost on Suzie, and surely informed her decision to make us a collection of street kids, since we could credibly pull off, class and color-wise. Because even most of the white kids were either straight out of the mobile home or just one or two rungs up. This idea of class is very important to what made this program work, and what subsequently staffed her play. A lot of us were from shitty homes. Every day of theater and performance was one less that we had to spend in the proximity of an alcoholic father, or taking care of our siblings while our mom worked. Of course I had it good. My family, while not rich, was doing quite fine at the time, at least on the surface (bankruptcy loomed right around the corner, but that’s another essay).

Suzie’s model for the show was Broadway for-profit, where you convince a group of investors to pony up the money to stage the thing in hopes of a return; if it hits, they get can wildly count stacks of cash as the tickets scream out of the box office. If it flops, well then they’re shit out of luck. This is a very risky, Vegas-like method of producing theater, but this was how you got to Broadway, so Suzie gathered all us up in the spring of ‘85 to put together and investors’ preview show.

We were given a 30-minute piece of the show to rehearse, which contained snippets from most every song. She booked the venerable Capitol Theater in downtown Olympia as the venue and invited anyone with money in town, along with our largely un-moneyed parents. Each potential investor was handed a slick packet describing the project along with the potential windfall it held. Suzie took to the stage laid on the hard sell in a spiel before and after the show. The minimum buy-in was one thousand dollars, which, to most of our folks at the time, may have well been a million. I remember on the ride home, my dad shrugging his meaty shoulders and laughing, “A thousand bucks? What does she think we’re made out of money?” The whole affair was seen as tone-deaf at best among so many of our struggling parents.

Still, she got her funding. I suspect a few of the more well-to-do parents kicked in, but most, I’m sure, balked. The plan was to rehearse the show for a couple of months, premiere it for a week in Olympia, and then take it to Seattle, for three-week run at the Moore Theater. A successful Seattle debut would then attract the attention of New York producers (a couple of whom had already responded with nominal sniffs after she sent them the show’s promo package), who in turn would bring the whole thing to New York, where we would all then bathe in the glory of the lights of Broadway.

All of us would be paid minimum wage for our efforts, which at the time was a staggering $2.30 an hour, with meals and transportation and anything else that could be dreamed up deducted from the final tally. Aside from the gargantuan expense of theater rental, there was also insurance and promotion to consider. On top of this, a whole pit orchestra of musicians would also need to be hired. The cast would commute back and forth from Lacey to Seattle (about an hour at the time) in an old school bus purchased for the task. The price tag for the whole thing came in at around $200,000, a whopping sum in 1985, and while I never knew exactly who the backers were, I was told some years later that after the initial fundraising failed to generate serious interest, Suzie’s father ended up footing most of the bill..

In May, she held auditions, and by June the show was cast and rehearsals underway. I was given the part of “Paul,” one of the ten street kids. It was a major role and I was appropriately stoked. Paul had anger issues and was the most skeptical, cynical voice among the group, like a younger, very watered-down version of Judd Nelson’s Bender from the “Breakfast Club,” complete with torn Levis and flannel, a very proto-grunge look. I was given perhaps the most dramatic entrance of the show, chasing an eight year-old waif named “Skeeter” through the aisles of the theater because he had stolen my donut, a capital offense, evidently, among the calorically-deprived children of the streets. 

There were twenty-five kids in the cast, total, with pretty much all of us coming from the KPW program. Ten of us formed the main ensemble of street kids, while the rest made up the chorus, who, aside from providing vocal support during the songs, donned top hats, feathers, gowns, sequins, and tails to perform old-timey numbers as the “ghosts” of past performers in the Galaxy Theater. This reinforced the whole show business motif of the production. Despite its social commentary trappings, “Galaxy Theatre” was never about the plight of runaway kids. It was instead a celebration of the mythology of Broadway theater, utilizing the language of showbiz itself in an endless spiral of theatrical self-reflection.

Consider the chorus from the opening number, all sung by raggedy runaways who somehow become instantly aware of old musical theater lingo:

Come come come for the music.

Come come come to the show.

Come to the Orpheum Theater, a place we can grow.

Come come come to the gala.

Come come to the preview.

Come to the Orpheum Theater, where dreams can come true.

Come come come for the costumes.

Come come come for the lights.

Come to the Orpheum Theater, it’s our opening night!

You can’t deny that it’s enthusiastic stuff. Forget the depravities of street life–hunger, exposure, sexual abuse–this group of homeless kids were all the glimmer and spectacle of the biz! Hey kids! Let’s put on a show.

Going into the run, none of us had any doubt about the success of our endeavor. Why would we? We had faith in Suzie’s proclamations. What she said went, without question; her word was fiat. In essence, KPW was run like a cult, with Suzie dazzling at the top, and the rest of us scrambling about in a never ending attempt to curry her favor. The result was a constantly shifting totem pole of favorites, who were rewarded with special trips to the costume store, pizza dinners, or sleepovers at her parents’ house. To say that this caused myriad friction and rivalries among the kids goes without saying, but one cross look from Suzie my way would put my whole day in a tailspin.

As far as the show was concerned, it was a case of “if we perform it, people will not only come, they will love it.” This is certainly the line that Suzie pounded into our bones, and once we actually moved into the historic Moore Theatre for our Seattle tenure, her previous proclamations were infused with the weight of legitimacy. After all, we had gotten this far: a run at a great, historic theater. The show had been designed for such a venue, and now we had the keys to the place. Big things were taking shape. Everything now felt so real.

moore

The Moore was built in 1907 and is truly one of the great old theaters of the west coast. The inside is a mixture of Byzantine and Italianate design–all pale yellow and deep rust red–with a marble-floored, chandelier-lit lobby. The place has seen vaudeville, opera, touring musicals, and by the time we had arrived, loads of rock bands. It was a major stop on the circuit for mid-range and up-and-coming rock and rollers. My older brother had recounted the glories of the many shows he had attended at The Moore, a fact not lost on me the first time I stepped up onto that stage. I’m standing on the exact same spot where Def Leppard played, I thought, shivering in the thrill of my proximity to rock and roll holiness.

Prior to that summer I had spend very little time in Seattle, but now, for a few weeks at least, I was allowed to steep in its glory. This was the big city as far as I was concerned, with skyscrapers, taxicabs, guys in power suits, and homeless-a-plenty. We were under strict orders to go straight from the bus into the theater, never to wander out alone. The Moore sits right at the edge of downtown in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, which at the time was a kind of salt lick for crackheads and winos. These marginalized and sketchy people were a fixture in neighborhood, and a source of endless amazement for some of us kids. One time I was sitting in Suzie’s car with Ryan McKay, the little kid who played “Skeeter” the donut thief. We had hit off during the production and I came to assume a kind of big brother role with him. Suzie was inside talking to the theater manager and had left us alone to wait, when suddenly a howling, catastrophically drunk American Indian dude staggered out from the alley and proceeded to kick the shit out of a parking meter, attacking it with absolute abandon. We slid down in our seats, eyes rapt, fascinated by the random violence erupting in front of us, just hoping he didn’t see us and concentrate his wrath our way.

Often, the ten kids who made up the main ensemble would accompany Suzie on promotional trips around town. On these occasions we were made to wear our “Orpheum Theatre” uniforms–cherry red sweatsuits with the show’s logo on the front. We headed to places like the Seattle Center and Rainier Square Mall downtown, where we’d perform a few spunky songs from the show and then hand out flyers in a bid to get those proverbial asses in the seats. We went into studios to record radio spots and once, a PM Magazine show from one of the local TV stations even did a segment on us, which for most of us was a stamp of utmost legitimacy. One of my favorite memories from these day excursions was a trip we made to the Showboat Theater, a long-gone 200-seat theater on an actual old wooden boat moored in Lake Washington next to the university. The place radiated history in a way that nearly rivaled The Moore.

But the Moore was it. That was our playground, a living entity of its own. Given the show’s obsession with the mythology of the theater in general, our time in the Moore was seen as nothing short of holy. Suzie and Barb never let us forget this, and as a result, we felt like we had been given the keys to a temple.

Moore-New-Seats-2013
Every old theater has a smell, which usually skews towards the musty, given the dark nature of the places. The Moore smelled slightly of mildew, with a sweet tinge of beer and tobacco. The brightest spots were the dressing rooms, with their bulb bordered mirrors, and the stage itself during the show. When the stage was not in use, a single ghost light sat on a stand downstage center, illuminating the dark boards with its lonely halo. Sometimes I would sneak into the house and slide into the seat and just stare at that singular light, soaking up the darkness and the history of the place.

It was palatable history, a past so thick that you could taste it in the air. Theaters are remarkable places because they see so many human beings come and go, but unlike other busy places–say subway station or a department store, every person who steps into a theater does so for a very specific purpose. It is a place people are excited to enter, a space where rituals are made in a synergy between the audience and performers. A lot of energy is created and expended in such a place, so it’s no surprise that a whole host of superstitions have grown up around theaters. No one believes in these things more than actors, and even as child performers we were inundated with such stories.

According to Suzie, the Moore was said to had two active ghosts. One was the benign apparition of a young woman called “The Lady in White,”while the other was the more rarely experienced ghost of a man who had fallen to his death from the top of the fly space above the stage. He was said to be much more malevolent entity, slamming doors, flipping light switches, and flinging objects through the air.

Suzie told us about these ghosts on the night that we all slept in the theater. She held a slumber party for the cast, with all of us rolling out our sleeping bags right there on the stage, dozing off under the eerie comfort of the ghost light. The highlight of this gathering, however, wasn’t any story, but rather an expedition below.

The Moore Theater was built in conjunction with a hotel next door that bore its same name, which, while once a gilded age gem, had since fallen into relative shabbiness. Beneath the stage was a passage leading into a whole forgotten underworld connected with the hotel. With flashlight in hand, Suzie led us down a crumbling path into a cavernous chamber containing an empty swimming pool filled with aged wooden chairs instead of water. There were pillars and carvings covered in the dust of the decades, the ruins of a 1920’s era art deco spa. It was a hidden, secret place, and I felt like we were the first to venture into its confines since they shuttered the main doors back in the 30’s.

Suzie has us all believing the ghosts of the Moore. I was especially prone to such talk and found myself looking over my shoulder constantly when making my way through any part of the space; in a sense I longed to see one of the spirits with my naked eyes, though I knew deep down that, if this happened, I would more than likely shit myself. Still, I couldn’t helped but being drawn to the otherworldliness of it all. For me,the act of theater had always felt like communing with something else, something greater than us. Sure I loved performing for the personal gratification of people loving and affirming me, but I had always suspected that this thing we do in these strange, dark spaces maybe meant something more. It surely felt more important than just playing make believe to me, even if I didn’t quite know why at the time. Or now.

KPW had its own “theater ghost,” a very benign entity that Suzie had invented as a way to sooth the jitters and kind of bless the kids before they took to the stage. Her name was “Sparkle Plenty,” and while in reality she was nothing more than a eighty cents worth of purple glitter piled up in a clear jar, Suzie endowed her with the powers to elevate our performances into the realm of the sublime, and like Catholics chewing the wafer and drinking the wine, we believed it. Or pretended to. The very idea of theater rests upon this conceit of suspension of disbelief, and make no mistake, this whole experience of “Orpheum Theatre” was nothing but theater in its purest sense. Suzie was casting a spell that we all chose to believe in. We gladly played our parts–every last one of us. And in order for any of us to enjoy it, we had to cast all of our doubts aside and just buy into the whole gig.  

Before each performance we would form a circle and Suzie would give her very earnest pep talk, reminding us of how extraordinary we all were, and how extraordinary an endeavor we were all involved in. This was followed by the passing around of Sparkle Plenty, who would then imbue us with the confidence and energy to walk up onto that stage and sell it. To dazzle ‘em. To bring the roof down.

But that never happened. Aside from some inspired moments, we never really dazzled. The roof never blown off. And Suzie had booked a colossal venue, obscenely large, one that we could never even dream of filling night after night. The Moore seated up to 1,400 people when opened to full capacity. We were pulling maybe 300 on a good night, and often much less. We performed matinees to 20 or 30 people, which, in a space of that size, was like performing for nobody.


Suzie had done the groundwork as far as publicity was concerned, but the show stank. Yes, Alex Pippen’s music was dynamic, toe-tapping, and hummable–even soaring to terrific heights at a couple of points–but his brilliance wasn’t enough to keep the thing afloat under the weight of a bloated, bush league script. Suzie, while very adept at inspiring us kids and motivating legions people to support her vision, simply hadn’t put the work in when it came to the book, and the results were cringe-worthy.

Look no further than the show’s climax: “Racer,” the cleverest, most Artful Dodger-esque kid of the bunch, is out scrounging food with his buddy “Willy,” another of the crew, when he gets caught up in the crossfire of a store robbery gone bad, and is shot dead. Willy carries him back into the theater, where all nine remaining kids weep over Racer’s bloody corpse, choking back sobs while gasping forth a cascade of cliches. Eventually the question is put to action: Should we stay or should we go?

Somehow, the decision is left up to me, “Paul.” After a teary, Pinteresque pause, I blurt out: “We should go.”

And then we break into song.


Tomorrow is ours and we shall be

All that we want to be and more

Everything lost is found

It’s time to be opening doors



Tomorrow is won so let’s begin

Reach for the stars and we shall win

We are the children, we’re the children of the future.

What started as a weepy lament now metamorphosizes into a celebration of the future! We’re not only the children of today, but we’re also the children of the future, which means we’ll never grow up. This, upon examination can’t be good news for any parties involved. Somehow, all roads lead back to Peter Pan.

This final number was meant to leave the audience with a sense of hope, catharsis in the heart of tragedy. The image instead was one of nine kids galavanting across the stage under a chromatic shower of balloons. All the while, downstage center, in the exact spot occupied by the ghost light off hours, lies Racer’s bullet-ridden, blood spattered body, with poor Marcus, the kid playing the part, doing his damnedest to not take a noticeable breath during that final, interminable half hour of the show.

The show, of course, was panned. The critics did their best to render their verdicts gently, well aware that their words were crushing dreams, but they had a responsibility to tell the truth, especially since “Galaxy Theater” had such openly stratospheric aspirations. I remember Joe Adcock’s review in the Seattle P-I, where he stressed how much he wanted to like the show, but in the end had to admit that he was “a jaded old man.” It’s somehow appropriate that my first exposure to the word “jaded” occurred during an experience that would teach me the bitter taste of its meaning.

Suzie was sideswiped by the critical response. She was left blinking and stunned. Her first reaction was fury, followed by disbelief, which then settled into sadness. It was as if it never occurred to her that the show could be received with anything but standing ovations and raves. The reaction from the press ripped the air from her lungs, and that day the P-I review came out, I recognized something in her swirling black eyes that I had never seen before: fear.

She had taken four of us (her current favorites) with her that day to hand out flyers in order to gin up interest in the show. Later,we stopped at a pizza joint on the Seattle ship canal linking Lake Washington and Lake Union where she ordered a pie to go. We sat next to her on the grass outside of the restaurant, watching the sailboats glide by underneath a honeyed sun, while she gripped her head in her hands and quietly wept.

“Why aren’t they coming?” she sighed. “Why aren’t they coming?”

That night she took us to stay at her grandparents condo in Bellevue (they were out of town), on the strip-mall dominated, soulless east side of town. As we took down the pizza in silence, I gazed out the window onto the traffic-choked road stretching miles beyond. As the day drained away, a river of headlights slithered along. It was a hissing, ugly scene, and I realized then and there that Bellevue was the closest we were ever going to get to Broadway.  

The fact that “Galaxy Theatre” had tectonic flaws from the get go should have surprised no one But we were all so bedazzled by the whole affair that it never occurred to us that thing just might be a massive squiggle of turkey shit. Surely some of the adults looking on from the outside would have seen just how bad it was, but they chose to keep their mouths shut, at least when it came to us kids. Why shatter our little summer dream? Or did they, too, not know any better?

We lasted one more week before Suzie finally pulled the plug. The reviews were the ink on the show’s death warrant, and soon the lights came down we all rode the red school bus back to Lacey to resume our anonymous, mundane, very unfabulous lives. The very next day I came down with the flu and spent the next week in bed.

Suzie continued to do the Kids’ Performance Workshop, and I returned the next summer to work as an assistant director, though something had fundamentally shifted. The lustre had worn off both the program, and more personally, her. The experience of Galaxy Theater had allowed me to peer behind the curtain, and now the magic was ruined. Who had been a glowing, almost messianic figure had now transformed into a controlling and–even worse–exceedingly ordinary woman. Her word was no longer any good to me, and this, combined with teenage angst in full effect, cause me to buck accordingly. By the end of the summer she had accused me of being strung out on drugs, which, while totally false, made a certain sense. Such was the go-to explanation for non-conformity in the 80’s, an easy way to explain away behavior that may have more complicated causes. Some scabs are best left unpicked, I suppose.

It’s been well over thirty years since that starry-eyed summer in Seattle, yet I still find myself rewinding the experience in my mind. Magic is by definition, ethereal; we can’t put our hands on it, and those weeks were the longest period of pure, untouchable magic in my life, even if, in retrospect, it was all based on flimsy promises and, like all performance, a handful of cheap tricks.

The spectacular failure of “Galaxy Theatre” did nothing to sour me to the theater; in fact, it just threw coal into my furnace. I went on to perform, study, and produce theater for nearly twenty years after, though much less enamored by the “magic” and more in tune to the nuts-and-bolts of what makes a play work. “Galaxy Theater” taught me just how deeply a show could fail, so afterwards I learned how to better guard against it, to varying degrees of success.

In preparation for this essay, I contacted a number of former cast members to get their take on things. I found that an overwhelming number had nothing but positive things to say, that their experience in “Galaxy Theater” radiates as one of the golden memories of their youth. A few others, including me, recall things with more of a jaundiced eye, though in the end I think we all owe Suzie and Barb much more thanks than scorn. “Galaxy Theater” took us out of our mundane lives to a place of wonder; it allowed us to perform on stage and actually get paid; it offered up the multi-splendored Moore Theater as our personal playground; it showed us the vivid reality of city life, a front row instruction in the perils of crackheads and winos; it also presented me a glorious squeeze Angela Connor’s already substantial titty during a silent make-out session on the bus ride home, a luscious memory I have carried with me for over three decades now.

“Galaxy Theatre” taught us about possibility, as well as failure, which is a lesson best learned young. Most importantly, we were all instructed in the most basic and brutal rule in showbiz: It’s best just to assume that everyone is full of shit.

 

 



 



Learning to Live with a Nuclear N Korea: Awful, but Better than the Alternatives

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Image result for Pakistan nuclear weapons

We live Pakistani nuclear missiles; we can live with North Korean ones too.

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the New York Daily News a few weeks ago, at the peak of the summer war-scare.

I argue that we can in fact live with a nuclear missilized North Korea. Yes, that sucks. But all this irresponsible talk that we can’t adapt, that nuclear North Korea is an undeterrable, existential threat is just threat-inflating baloney. We’ve learned to live with nuclear missiles in the hands a Muslim state with a serious jihadi problem. Would America prefer this not to be the case? Yes. But is living with a nuclear Pakistan a better choice than bombing it or sending in US special forces to destroy their nukes? Absolutely. Or we would have done it already.

It’s not clear to me why this is so hard for people to absorb. What is it about North Korea that makes people lose their mind and say bonkers s*** about risking a huge regional war?

The full essay follows the jump.

 

 

As the current war-scare with North Korea heats up, it is worth observing that the United States has learned to live with other countries’ nuclear weapons and missiles without a war. As loathsome as North Korea’s domestic politics are, it is not at all clear that North Korea intends to use its nuclear weapons offensively against the United States or American allies in the northeast Asia. As former National Security Advisor Susan Rice put it recently, the United States can “tolerate” a nuclear North Korea.

Language is important here. “Tolerate” does not mean endorse or approve. No one wants North Korea to have nuclear weapons, not even the Chinese, who often abet North Korean bad behavior. But we have little choice. This is teeth-grinding, grudging tolerance, because the other options are so poor. And it does not preclude us from taking actions to defend ourselves and otherwise pressure North Korea.

For convenience, those options might be arrayed along a typical, left-center-right spectrum. Doves on the left would seek engagement and dialogue with the North. They argue that the US and South Korea have demonized North Korea over the years so much, that the North is understandably hostile. George W. Bush famously placed North Korea on an ‘axis of evil’ and said he ‘loathed’ Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea itself routinely claims that the US pursues a ‘hostile policy’ toward it, and that it needs nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantee against American-led regime change. The Kims have been quite explicit that they do not wish to meet the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Kaddifi. The South Korean left has sought a dovish engagement policy for years, peaking in the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ from 1998-2008. The most prominent figure of such thinking is the current liberal South Korean president, Moon Jae In.

Hawks on the right would argue that military action must be contemplated, because North Korea is the most dangerous state in history to possess nuclear weapons. These critics would suggest that engagement is a ruse, that North Korea cheated on the ‘Sunshine Policy,’ and that Pyongyang’s brutal, gangsterish dictatorship cannot be trusted to have the world’s most powerful weapons. Indeed the ruling Kim family may not even be rational. They may use these weapons offensively against the United States, or to coerce Korean unification on Northern terms. The most prominent figure making such arguments in the United States today is probably John Bolton.

Centrists – the position taken here – would argue that engagement with North Korea has traditionally failed, and that military action is too risky. Doves have indeed struggled to show results from engagement or negotiation. Talks with North Korea often seem to drag on forever, with constant trickery and backsliding on the North Korean side. The last serious US-North Korean deal, struck in 2012, began to unravel within weeks because of North Korean noncompliance. Talks in the Bush years also seemed to go nowhere. On the South Korean side, the Sunshine Policy, despite great commitment from Seoul, yielded little, and Moon’s recent, renewed effort at outreach has been batted away by Pyongyang.

Trying to talk to North Korea is always a good idea. As Winston Churchill said, ‘jaw jaw is better than war war.’ But we must go in with deep skepticism. We must not allow talks to become an end in themselves, a play for time by North Korea to continue developing its weapons. Nor must talks degenerate into subsidies to a dictatorship as an effort to ‘buy’ good behavior from North Korea. This is ultimately what undid the Sunshine Policy. So in this current crisis, we should support Secretary of State Tillerson’s efforts. He said to Pyongyang just a few days ago, ‘we are not your enemy,’ in an effort to draw out the North. But after decades of effort, our expectations of engagement should be low.

Hawks have similarly struggled to find an answer to the North Korean conundrum. Force is an attractive option for a superpower. The US has the world’s best military, and it is tempting to use that powerful leverage, as President Trump seems to be hinting. We do this frequently in the Middle East, where we have used invasion, special forces, and drones to pursue our opponents. But that is feasible there, because the US is relatively secure from counter-strikes, other than limited terrorist action. In the Korean case, North Korea has significant capabilities to do great damage to our allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, and perhaps now to the US homeland itself via its emergent intercontinental ballistic missiles. South Korea is especially vulnerable. Its capital, Seoul, lies just twenty miles from the demilitarized zone border. Some twenty million people live in Seoul and its nearby cities. Were the North Koreans to retaliate against an American airstrike, they could do great damage to Seoul, potentially killing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands if they used nuclear weapons. As North Korea’s missile tests have accelerated, Pyongyang can now range Japan’s cities too, plus, perhaps, American cities. All this means that North Korea could respond devastatingly to an American airstrike.

This knowledge has stayed the hand of American and South Korean planners for decades. North Korea has provoked the US and South Korea plenty. There have been repeated North Korean provocations which could reasonably have warranted South Korean and/or American counterstrikes. In 1968, 1969, 1976, 1987, and 2010 occurred the worst North Korean provocations of the decades-long Korean division. Despite casualties and heated debate in South Korean and American media over the need to ‘finally’ punish North Korea, no action was taken. This was not from reticence – the US has been more than willing to pursue an aggressive drone war in the Middle East – but rather from the exposure of millions of innocent South Koreans and Japanese to North Korean retaliation.

Kinetic options have other downsides the Trump administration would be wise to contemplate before it unleashes the bombers. North Korea has been tunneling since the 1960s to prepare for just such an American air campaign. The US punishingly bombed North Korea during the Korean War, 1950-1953. Over a million died. North Korean planners learned that lesson and have been digging ever since. This means that any airstrike on North Korea would not look like what we have become accustomed to in the Middle East. There could be no limited cruise missile or drone strike which could be wrapped up in a day. Instead, North Korea’s decades-old hardening would require an extensive air campaign, involving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of air sorties, pursuing dozens of targets. We would call it a ‘surgical strike’ before global public opinion, but in practice it would be a war.

Once the bombs started to fall, the North Koreans would move everything underground, requiring yet more airstrikes. They would also use human shields, with grandmothers and infants placed around any targets which could not be moved below ground. Pictures of dead innocents would immediately be broadcast globally.

Finally, the North Koreans have a defensive alliance with China. China would not support North Korean aggression against the South or US, but it would, technically, be required to help North Korea if it were attacked. And an American air campaign would look so much like a war – no matter what we call it – that North Korea would almost certainly call on its ally for help. We do not actually know the redlines of that alliance. Perhaps China would abandon North Korea. But China intervened in 1950 to bail out North Korea as it began to lose the Korean War, and its strategists still refer to North Korea today as a ‘buffer’ between China and the robust democracies of South Korea, Japan, and America. Were China to enter the war on Pyongyang’s side, that could be disastrous. Americans and Chinese shooting at each other could easily spiral into a major regional, or even global, conflict sucking in Russia, whose Siberian backyard extends all the way to east Asia, and Japan as well.

These combined risks are so high that centrists reject the use of force as too risky, at the same time they grasp the general futility of negotiating with North Korea. The answer then is an unsatisfying ‘more of the same.’ For 64 years, deterrence and defense have worked on the peninsula. For all the tension, cable news hysteria, and North Korean provocation, the Korean War has not returned. Deterrence has been stable, however morally unsatisfying we find that, because it allows vicious North Korea to hang on.

North Korean nuclearization does not fundamentally change this. The United States already lives in a permanent nuclear deterrence relationship with Russia and China, and we have for decades. We have adapted ourselves, however grudgingly, to those countries’ nuclear missilization. The Cuban Missile Crisis is remembered as an American victory over the Soviet Union, but within a decade the Soviets had the ability to strike the US homeland without Cuba. We have lived with that, plus later Chinese and Pakistani nuclearization. This was unwanted, but, as with North Korea, the alternatives, particularly the military ones, were simply too risky. We learned to tolerate, just as Rice suggests we now do with North Korea.

This is depressing, but nonetheless the likely outcome of the current crisis. Trump may bluster and threaten, but I have little doubt his national security staff has warned him of the great risks of a strike. Nor should we think that North Korea intends to use these weapons to offensively strike the US. The American retaliation for an out-of-the-blue Northern strike would be devastating. North Korea as a functioning state would be utterly destroyed, and its elite killed. And that elite is not suicidal ideologues. They are not ISIS or Osama bin Laden. If they wanted to go down in a blaze of anti-American glory, they could have done so at any time of the last few decades. They wish to survive.

Sticking to the deterrence posture we have pursued since 1953 is not passivity in the face of threat. We can, and likely will, put resources into missile defense. If the North insists on missilization, then we should respond in kind with a ‘roof.’ And we can continue to pursue ever-tightening sanctions, which even China recently supported, to constrict North Korea’s pipeline to the global economy. North Korea’s gangster elite enjoys a life of privilege which requires that pipeline, as do its nuclear and missile programs. Going after their money and access will hurt.

If this feels unsatisfying or disappointing, it is. There is no silver bullet regarding North Korea. Were there, we would have used it long ago. North Korean nuclear missiles are a fact we can either adapt to, or risk a major war over. The US has, despite all our power, not risked that war to date, and I imagine Donald Trump will not in the end either.


Filed under: Asia, Defense, Engagement, Foreign Policy, Korea (South), Media, Missiles/Missile Defense, United States


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

@Robert_E_Kelly

 

 


How to Ride the Seoul Subway (지하철) | Getting Around in Korea

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I've gotten lost more times than I can count while riding the subway in Korea. I'm fairly 길치, which means that I'm not good at maps or directions. But even someone like me can get around the subway because of how simple it is to use. It might look scary, but the Seoul subway is one of the world's most advanced subway systems. It's simple to use, and I'll teach you how it works and how to get around. I'll also tell you what to look out for if you don't want to get lost like me.

Check it out here~!

The post How to Ride the Seoul Subway (지하철) | Getting Around in Korea appeared first on Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean.


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