May 2, 2017

Love, Loan Sharks and Lee Seo Jin

Loan sharks are as necessary to Korean drama as water is to fish. They are cupids with brass knuckles, traumatizing Kdrama heroines into sketchy arrangements, where – after misunderstandings, humiliation, heavy labor, and disheartening setbacks – they ultimately find love and economic security. At least, that is the typical scenario.

The loan shark has been as necessary to Lee Seo Jin’s dramas as to anyone else’s, but with a difference. Check out the twists on the loan shark/love/LSJ triangle in his last three romance dramas.

Marriage Contract

A loan shark grabs Uee by the collar and threatens to sell her young daughter for sex if she doesn't pay her debtWith a contemptuous expression on his face, Lee Seo Jin summons Uee with a gesture used only for animals
The hero is as mean as the loan sharks. I guess you could say LSJ rescues our heroine from the loan sharks. But he doesn’t do it for love (at least, not for love of her). There’s a steep price indeed! Maybe she should’ve just gotten herself a lawyer.

Wonderful Days

Debt collector Kim Hee Sun badgers violent loan shark Ok Taecyon
The heroine is a loan shark. Sort of. LSJ’s childhood sweetheart works for loan sharks. She is such an effective persuader that their rougher tactics are rarely called for. She has her reasons for this unconventional career choice, but since Lee Seo Jin is a prosecutor… awkward!

Alas, her bravado, quick thinking and stellar negotiation skills are dust in the wind once she abandons her unwomanly calling to assume her “rightful” role as wife and daughter-in-law. In fact, for the second half of the drama, she creates one mess after another by impulsively acting on misperceptions. This is utterly inconsistent with her previous street smarts. She’s not really cut out for Korean family life – she was better at debt collecting!


Kim Gyu Ri stares at the fist Lee Seo Jin has just pounded on her desk after breaking up her father's shop
LSJ is the loan shark. In one of LSJ’s most popular dramas, we see in flashbacks that he used to be a loan shark. He has moved on to more exalted gang roles and then to rehabilitation by the time we meet him, but his girlfriend remains as a reminder of the bad old days – they met when he was shaking down her father!

Loan Sharks in Real Life

On a more serious note, loan sharks are not just a humorous Kdrama plot device. Predatory lending is an actual and serious problem in South Korea. This 2009 article shows loan sharking complaints steadily climbing, and it is clear from this 2016 article describing a crackdown by Seoul’s metropolitan police that the situation has continued to worsen. The U.S. State Department draws a connection between loan sharking and human trafficking. Let’s hope the next Korean President will make predatory lending a priority on a national scale (improving women’s rights and the economy would also help).

See all reviews of Dramas with Lee Seo Jin

March 15, 2017

The Downside to Working at Home

In case you are one of the two people in the world who hasn’t seen this yet…

The video resonated globally with people who work at home and went viral…

There is interesting political content in the original video, if you can tear your attention away from the cute kids. Kelly’s sentiment that South Korea handled the impeachment in a commendably non-violent, democratic manner has been echoed internationally.

However, as a BBC insert observes, two elderly Park supporters died during pro-Park demonstrations the day Park was removed from office. Details on the deaths have been scanty, but the death toll has now risen to three. Early reports mentioned demonstrators stoning police with chunks of concrete, but did not connect that to the deaths.

This should not detract from the months of peaceful demonstrations by millions of Koreans that came before. We can only hope to see as many Americans come forward when it becomes obvious that their choice was as unfortunate. It’s understandable that the Korean police would want to play down the death of seniors at such a historical moment. However, it looks worse if hushed up. Better to release full details and acknowledge any faults or regrets ASAP.

November 23, 2016

Korean Word of the Month: Bi Jung Sang (Abnormal, Not Top)

This Reuters photo of Korean demonstrators borrowing “not my president” from American protestors really caught my eye. Of course, since this is Korea, it comes out as oori (our) President. The sign on the left has a photo of President Park Geun Hye riding piggyback on someone. I assume this is her notorious buddy Choi Soon Sil, who wears sunglasses a lot.

A photo of two Korean demonstrators in a large crowd holding protest signs that say Not Our President in English

I was curious about the Hangeul words on the sign on the right, so I looked them up. Google persisted in translating the first word, 혼이 as “honey.” This annoyed me, since it is wrong in both meaning and pronunciation. 혼 (Romanized “hon”) is pronounced hone (rhymes with phone), not hun.

Luckily, we already know the meaning of 혼 (soul or spirit) from the title of Lee Seo Jin’s 2009 drama by that name. 이 is a subject marking particle. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it. It’s not that significant in a two-word phrase.

The really interesting word is 비정상, which translates as “abnormal,” or has the alternate meaning of “not the summit.” I confirmed these two meanings in several sources. This post to a language blog by a Korean English-learner was especially helpful. Check out the comments.

“Not the Summit”

Even with the help of aforementioned comments, I wasn’t sure I understood the significance of “not the summit.” Then it occurred to me to look up 정상 by itself. It means summit. So apparently 비 has a similar function to 안, which can mean “not” when added to the beginning of a word. Therefore, 비정상 literally means not the top or summit.

But what is the implication of top/summit in Korean? In English, “not the top” might imply that something was unimportant or mediocre. I can’t assume Koreans draw the same association between height and valuableness, though it is a common one in hierarchical societies. In any case, I feel fairly confident that the choice of a word with dual meanings is deliberate. Koreans are big on word play. But we are forgetting 혼, and we shouldn’t. As a phrase, 혼이 비정상 says something like “abnormal (and inferior) spirit.”

Korean Shamanism

If you follow the posts on my Facebook page, you know the current scandal surrounding Park Geun Hye is tied to the recent history of native shamanistic religion in Korea. Such religions were violently suppressed (by Park Geun Hye’s father, among others) in the mid-20th century. Thousands of unique shrines across the country were destroyed, an irretrievable loss.

21st century Korea seems ambivalent about shamanism. It is discounted as superstition unsuited to a modern society. However, the unique Koreanness of it is attracting new attention. Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity dominate Korean spiritual and moral life. None of them are native to Korea.

But they can’t really have it both ways with Park Geun Hye. If association with shamanism erodes her credibility, doesn’t that also denigrate traditional Korean spirituality?

Korean Demonstrators, Broken Promises and Bruised Kibun

It has puzzled me that tens of thousands of Korean protestors are flooding the streets (in very cold weather) over Park’s latest scandal. Seeking feedback from a non-political friend doesn’t seem that scandalous to me. Blackmailing chaebols into making donations is certainly illegal, but the money went to culture and sports nonprofits, not slush funds. There have been numerous other scandals in Park’s administration to date that were far more serious. For example, the Sewol ferry disaster and manipulation of government-supported TV networks, to name just a couple.

Then I started to wonder who these Korean demonstrators were. Are they opposition party members who voted against Park, or are they the people who elected her? If they are the people who put her in office, the intensity of the reaction suddenly makes more sense. If you know a little about kibun, that is. Broken presidential promises may reflect far more personally on a politician’s supporters in Korea than in the U.S. When Park fails, that failure reflects poorly on them.

Kibun is a complex, and very important factor in Korean life, which is why I haven’t written about it. It doesn’t have a direct western parallel, and I wouldn’t want to get it wrong. If you never heard of kibun before, the beginning of this article covers the basics, and may shed some light on Park’s 5% popularity rating.

June 9, 2016

Language & Alcohol-Blaming Contribute to Rape in Korea

A photo from the back of a woman with long black hair looking out over the sea on a cloudy dayRape in Korea has become a headline topic recently, though this has received little attention in the American press. In late May, a teacher in a remote island village was eating alone at a restaurant. Fathers of her students pressured her into joining them (culturally impossible to refuse), and drinking with them (which she repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to decline). When she was too drunk to leave the restaurant on her own, they drove her home and gang-raped her.

Although women are not particularly respected in Korea, teachers are, so there was public outcry over this. Furthermore, this teacher was much younger than the rapists (which made it even more culturally impossible for her to avoid them), who conspired after the fact to destroy evidence. The Ministry of Education was called upon to better protect teachers.

The Ministry’s initial response was to float a policy of not sending female teachers to remote areas. Since 75% of Korean teachers are women, that isn’t practical. More to the point, as Yang Lee Hyun-kyung of the Korean Women’s Association United put it:

How can not sending women to so-called dangerous places be the answer to preventing such crimes against women? What the government is supposed to do is to make a safe environment for women and minorities in society.

Anywhere in Korea can be a “dangerous place” for women and girls. For example, Gyeonggi province. In March, a 14-year-old boy lured a 12-year-old schoolmate to a cheap room where he fed her alcohol, and, along with 5 of his friends, gang-raped her.

And then there was Airdre Mattner, an Australian tourist, whose drink was drugged while she was on a pub crawl in Seoul last year. A group of men then abducted her from her group, took her by taxi to a cheap hotel, and raped her. When police finally acted under international pressure, they only prosecuted her rapists for “sexual harassment,” because “she was unconscious and therefore cannot prove she didn’t consent.” Excuse me??!!! Unconsciousness isn’t proof enough?!!


February 10, 2016

South Korea to Shut Down Kaesong Industrial Complex 개성공업지구

A map showing the border between North and South Korea and the cities of Seoul and KaesongThe South Korean government today announced plans to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Kaesong, also Romanized as Gaesong, is a city on the southern border of North Korea. Sageuk fans may remember it as the Korean capital during the Koryeo (or Goryeo) dynasty from the 10th-14th centuries, immediately preceding the Joseon era.

These days, Kaesong is home to 124 South Korean factories staffed by North Korean workers. The rather bizarre arrangement just goes to show that mutual greed overrides political principles when ruling elites collide. South Korean factory owners pay the North Korean workers about $74 a month. Minimum wage for South Korean workers is $5 an hour. MORE…

October 15, 2015

Korean Word of the Day: Family Reunion (가족상봉)

Photo of woman embracing crying elderly man
The international community hears a lot about the excesses of North Korea, whether it be the executions of former administration favorites, or candy bar economics. But an ongoing story we hear less about is how reunions between family members separated by the division of Korea in 1953 have become a political football.

A typical scenario is that North Korea starts making conciliatory overtures a few months before the annual South Korean – U.S. military exercises, which opens the door to scheduling family reunions. However, once preparations are underway, North Korea threatens to cancel them unless the military exercises are called off.

They have to know perfectly well by this time that the exercises will not be canceled, so the the whole call for reunions is a sham from beginning to end. But families who have been separated for half a century can’t help but hope. Surely this is the cruelest thing one set of Koreans can do to another, given the strength and importance of family ties.

Reunions are scheduled once again for next week. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the families will not be disappointed at this late date. Many of the participants are very elderly, and have not seen their relatives since they were children.

To give you some idea of the scale of the schism caused by the Korean division, there are 66,000 South Koreans on the waiting list for family reunions. 600 were selected by lottery for this round of reunions, and screened down to 100, with those who are least likely to survive to the next reunion taking precedence. Two of the South Koreans selected are 98 years old. More details.

This real life wound to the heart of Korea (the whole Korea) may shed some light on why the theme of lost relatives is so common in Korean drama. It’s an everyday truth etched into the family history of many, many Koreans, on both sides of the DMZ.

Getting back to the term for the reunions, regular visitors will recognize 가족 (kajok, family) from my earlier post. 상봉 (sahng-boeng) means reunion or reunited. Another word for reunion, 재회 (jay-wheh) is also sometimes used, so family reunion is 가족상봉 or 가족재회. Thanks to 귀선 for helping me with these terms.

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September 29, 2015

Korea, Women, Money - 한국, 여자, 돈

On Saturday, Park Gun Hye, Korea’s first female president, announced that South Korea would spend $200 million in 15 poor countries to launch a “Better Life for Girls” initiative.

A hand holding Korean paper money, with a low denomination bill on topI am all for improved education, health care, and autonomy for women everywhere, but the timing of this announcement was a tad ironic in the wake of an Associated Press article published the previous day. The article describes how hundreds of Korean women in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, unbeknownst to their families, prostitute themselves on the streets of Seoul to make ends meet.

In 2013, South Korea came in last in an Economist magazine ranking of the best countries for working women. Korea’s support for women abroad would be a lot more credible if it showed the same support for women at home.

September 3, 2015

Korean Politics: Fair Wind from the West

Korean politics is (are?) complex. While issues may seem similar to those found in other modern industrial cultures, positions and affiliations are often rooted in ancient conflicts and alliances. But even a Korean political novice like me can tell it’s significant when Park Gun Hye goes to China to attend the 70th anniversary celebration of their WWII victory, and Kim Jong Un doesn’t.
The Chinese and South Korean flags side by side connected by a short chain
This follows an unprecedented (in my paltry 4 years of Korea-watching, at least) apology from the north for crossing into the South Korean side of the “demilitarized” zone between the two countries – which is, of course, bristling with weaponry on both sides – and planting land mines. Two South Korean soldiers were maimed.

Of course, the north promptly turned around and denied that expressing “regret” constituted an apology. Um, OK. But that is not the only sign of diminished belligerence from North Korea. MORE…

January 10, 2012


A globe with Asia showing, and the Korean peninsula marked with a dot and a circleKorea?? This is what my friends, relatives and colleagues ask, with an uncertain look. Am I serious, or am I pulling their leg?

That look lingers on, even after I have talked about Korea enough to convince them that I am not joking. They are (usually) too polite to say it, but I can see it written all over their faces – why? Well, why not?

But I do understand their bafflement. I’ve known people who took a special interest in a country other than their own, which was not related to their heritage, and where they had no friends. I never got that. Until it happened to me.

This blog is my story…