Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: May 2013

Feast, Famine, and Korean Music

Econ 101: in a perfectly competitive environment, profits go to zero.

Case in point: Korean music.

After years of people saying Korea could not support summer music festivals, the country now has five major music festivals in a three-week span:

  • Ansan Valley Rock – July 26-28 – Ansan, Gyeonggi Province – 260,000 won (The Cure, Skrillex, NIN)
  • Pentaport – Aug. 2-4 – Songdo,  Incheon – 165,000 won (Fall Out Boy, Suede, Testament)
  • Jisan World Rock – Aug. 2-4 – Jisan – 250,000 (Weezer, Jamiroquai, Nas)
  • Supersonic – Aug 14-15 – Olympic Park, Seoul – 176,000 won (Pet Shop Boys)
  • City Break, Jamsil, Seoul, Aug. 17-18 – W250,000 (Muse, Metallica)

And those are in addition to these July festivals:

  • Asia Metal Festival – July 1-2 – Seoul – 73,000 won/day
  • Rainbow Island – July 7-9 – Nami Island, Gangwon Province – 99,000 won
  • Ultra Korea – July 14-15 – Olympic Stadium, Seoul – 160,000 won (DJs and EDM, but also Japan’s Perfume)

It’s the sort of pattern one sees over and over again in Korea, where everyone tells you something can’t be done, until someone does it, then everyone does the same thing, too, and floods the market, be it microbrew beer, mixed martial arts, or whathaveyou.

But I guess too much music is a problem you want to have. It’s great to see how far the scene has come since the first aborted attempt that was Triport in 1999.

Beauty Myths and Korean Beauty Myth Myths

Zara Stone over in the the Atlantic takes a look at Korea’s plastic surgery “obsession” (HT: Marmot’s Hole), in an article that is at once fascinating and infuriating. Fascinating because Stone has done a fair amount of serious reportage, digging up some really interesting history and details. Infuriating because it is so full of moralism, stereotypes, and poorly thought-out ideas.

Some points on Stone’s article, in no particular order:

1) “Plastic surgery” is presented like a blanket term, with little distinguishing between eyelid surgery and more invasive techniques (although Stone notes that Koreans often make such a distinction). No mention is made of, say, orthodontics, which in America is incredibly common, far beyond any medical need. Are braces and retainers examples of “body objectification”? How about Lasik surgeries? Tanning beds?

It’s also worth noting that Korea’s obesity rates are so much lower than America’s. So, while too many women in Korea have an unhealthy fascination with thinness, the problems with weight are a much smaller part of Korea’s body image problems.

The point being, if you broaden your definitions of body image beyond “plastic surgery,” suddenly Korea looks a lot less of an outlier.

(All that said, the V-line jaw surgery is pretty terrible stuff … although Stone gives us no sense of how common or uncommon the procedure is.)

2) The K-pop link. Like a lot of writers on this subject, Stone looks at K-pop’s beauty standards (although, thankfully, she notes that this is an issue that pre-dates K-pop). And like others, she blames K-pop for much of Korean women’s beauty myth problems (and the article focuses 99% on women). Which is pretty daft, in my opinion. There are huge amounts of plastic surgery in Hollywood and Western pop music, but people usually are more cautious about linking them to mainstream plastic surgery culture/trends. What makes K-pop so much more influential and problematic than Western pop culture? If there is a difference, Stone doesn’t describe it.

It’s also worth nothing that K-pop fans tend to be more interested in the male idols than the female, but once again the author glosses over male images in her analysis.

Oh, and then there are those K-pop talent shows on TV, which has produced acts like Busker Busker, Lee Hi, and Akdong Musicians — all pretty different faces and bodies than typical K-pop. If this was all about prefab appearances being pushed by the music companies, why does the Korean public vote for all sorts of different looks?

(Btw, I quite like this brief interview with Park Ji-min, winner of the “K-Pop Star” program, talking about why she likes working at JYP Entertainment).

3) Work and beauty. Stone talks a lot about how beauty is a part of work-related competition, trotting out the canard that the economic crisis of the late 1990s somehow pushed people toward more procedures. She also points out how Korea job applications include head shots — although I would point out that plenty other parts of the world tend to require photos, too, and Korea was requiring photos long before women were participating much in the workforce.

Do beautiful people have an unfair advantage when it comes to getting hired in Korea? Sure … just like everywhere. But is it significantly different in Korea? Not from the many, many offices I have been to in Korea over the years. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the university name and record matters far more than appearance (plus most of the high-prestige jobs in Korea require an application test, which double-fold eyelids don’t help you with at all).

* * *

Anyhow, I’m no fan of most cosmetic surgery, and like many people harbor an instinctive dislike for it. My wife has never had any work done and I’m quite happy with her (quite Korean) appearance. But making sweeping generalizations about a country based on my personal tastes (and a country that the author doesn’t particularly know)? That I’m much less confident about.

Certainly women in Korea, like women everywhere, are under way too much pressure to look certain ways. And the deep types of anti-women prejudice still lingering in Korea make it worse. As Sharon Heijin Lee (not “Hejiin”) says in the article:

There’s a real problem when you make generalizations about a whole country full of women, that they’re all culturally duped. There are certain economic situations happening in Korea and America that might impel different choices. We — Americans — might not see plastic surgery on the same level here that we see in Korea.


When we think of it as just the desire to look white, we’re not really giving credit to the surgery industry that flourishes by reprinting people’s features.

Body image and the pressures women are under to look a certain way are important subjects worth exploring. But blaming Korea’s version of these subjects on K-pop and economics is dubious to the extreme. If only Stone had listened more to her own expert.

Adios and Annyeong

Hard to believe it, but my time in Spain has nearly come to an end. Somehow our quick jaunt turned into nearly four years. But it has been a (mostly) fun four years, so no regrets. Living so close to all those Spanish beaches was good fun. Making new friends was quite nice. Working on another language was interesting.

Best of all, it was great to return to writing, after stopping for a couple of years to try out documentaries. In addition to the journalism and think tank writing, I should have a couple of books coming out later this year — two very different projects that I hope to talk about very soon.

But living here has also made it clear to me that I’m more of an Asia person than a European. It should be fun returning to a part of the world that I’m more accustomed to. Not to mention returning to the foods I like. It’s only been four years, and I have visited Korea a couple of times, but I’m still curious about what has changed. Korea is always changing, and I think that last few years were no different.

Spain’s Economy: Two Malos Don’t Make a Bueno (and 3 is right out)

Another weekend, another round of protests here in Spain by the indignados, or “the outraged”, demanding an end to cuts and other austerity measures. I was taking a walk along the Gran Via yesterday when one troupe of demonstrators from Badalona came marching down the road, blocking traffic and shouting their uncoordinated, mismatched chants (for someone used to Korean demonstrations, Spanish protests are rather underwhelming).

But protest quality aside, what is most irksome is seeing how profoundly all involved in Spain — the pro-austerity crowd and the indignados — continue to miss the point.

On the one hand, cutting and slashing budgets in Spain (and much of Europe) are terribly bad macroeconomics. This budget was in surplus with a very small debt when the economic crisis happened, and austerity now in such a miserable economy only creates more problems than it is supposed to cure.

On the other hand, so much of Spain is still so horribly inefficient. Businesses have 20 people doing the work of four or five in, say, New York. One cultural organization I know here in Barcelona has 18 people employed in its tourism division — despite not offering any tours of its facilities or doing anything tourism-related. It’s crazy. The good years of 1996-2006 or so  led to massive bureaucratic expansion, much of which is still in place.

So what solutions are politicians talking about? Instead of trying to figure out how to make the reforms that are needed to make Spain more efficient while creating projects that will help Spain in the long-term, we get arguments about Catalan independence. Instead of cutting the fat and adding to the efficient, we have institutions cutting the meat and protecting the fat.

People aren’t dumb, and as the Spanish political system proves itself to be thoroughly useless in solving the country’s problems, Spaniards are rapidly losing faith in the political system:

So we will very soon be in a situation in which the four main parties in Spain—the ones represented in the Metroscopia survey—all have around or less than 20% support, within a political and constitutional system that is rotting away all by itself due to so much corruption, incapable of bringing about the institutional changes necessary to adapt Spain to a new century, and in which there is no realistic alternative anywhere on the horizon capable of governing the country.

Of course, with the European economy as a whole shrinking for six quarters in a row — worse than the initial crisis of 2008/9 — it’s not like the rest of the continent is doing much better. It’s a beautiful place, but I’m happy I’ll be moving on soon.

Tides of Change

Google’s fun Earth Engine lets you look at maps of the world going back nearly 30 years, so you can see how an area has changed over time. Usually, the resolution isn’t good enough to turn up much of anything, but one area it works pretty well is with reclaimed land along coastlines. And between Songdo in Incheon and Saemangeum in Jeolla Province, Korea has a couple of big reclamation projects going on. So I checked them out on the Earth Engine to see how they looked.

Here is Songdo, the new “international business city” being built southwest of Seoul, close to the Incheon airport:

If you want to see some good pics on the ground of what Songdo looks like today, you should check out the photography of Robert Koehler (like this one):

Saemangeum is even bigger, with around 400 square kilometers eventually to be reclaimed from the sea (or so I read). I don’t know how much they’ve done so far, but it is fascinating to watch, along with the building of that huge sea wall:


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