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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 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…

February 13, 2012

For My Son | For the Sake of My Son - Review

아들을 위하여 (For My Son), or “For the Sake of (My) Son” is a 4-episode KBS drama that first aired over 4 weeks in December of 2011. Part of the story is set in North Korea, and all of it revolves around dastardly doings by denizens of that country. Kim Jong-il died on December 17, right in the middle of the series (his death is briefly mentioned in what must have been a hastily inserted extra scene). After initial high anxiety about what this meant for South Korea, overtures towards talks have been made on both sides. Which may explain why the January re-release of the drama on KBS World took place in the middle of the night, under the generic name “Drama Special” in the TV listings. [Update: This turns out to be the normal time for the KBS World Drama Specials, which typically air in the US 2-4 weeks after they air in Korea, and have 1-5 episodes.]

The again, maybe it’s just because it isn’t very good. If you’re a fan of Choi Soo-jong or Hwang Soo-jeong, or would like to see a mid-life romance for a change, the actors offer enough redeeming value to stay up late for. Indeed, KBS awarded Choi Soo-jong a prize for best actor in a one-act special for the series (though “For My Son” doesn’t quite seem to fit the category). However, if you demand any degree of verisimilitude in a plot, this series will not meet your expectations.

SPOILER ALERT – if you haven’t seen it yet and plan to, stop here.
MORE…