Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: January 2014

K-Pop Now! is here!

A fun present was waiting for me when I got home from work last night — three boxes full of K-POP NOW copies.

Most are reserved for the various people and music companies that helped out on the book. But it is nice to have them in my home for now.

Still a couple of months until the book will be available at, but feel free to pre-order, if you are so inclined. ^^

Hongdae from the above

Naver’s map service, in addition to offer a Google-like street view, offers something called “airplane view,” which is essentially these panoramic views of Korea from the air. I’ve known about it for a while, but never really thought much about it. I guess I just assumed they were just doing typical air routes for normal planes. I saw a nice one for Haeundae Beach in Busan, but for Seoul? Seoul typically is a nightmare for aerial filming (because of security regulations related to the North), so I just assumed you would not have anything interesting.

Dumb me, apparently.

I was looking for something in Hongdae on Naver Maps the other day, when I happened to hit the button for Airplane view, and, wow, there were some excellent views. Like this one, from over about Sangsu Subway Station, looking north:

And this is from Shinchon, looking south over Hongdae.

And here’s one looking north to Shinchon, with Yonsei University on the hil in the background:

The photos were apparently taken in 2009, so a few things have changed since then, but they still give you an interesting taste of my favorite Seoul neighborhood.



Friday morning links

There’s a very fun story in the Korea JoongAng Daily about the movie The Attorney coming on Monday. I’m really looking forward to linking to it. But in the meantime, here are a few things I’ve found interesting recently:

  • Google may be just the No. 3 most popular search engine in Korea (after Naver and Daum), but it is on the rise, while the local sites are stagnant or declining. Nate is bleeding particularly badly. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • For a great example of all that is wrong with government trying to promote pop culture, here’s a collaboration between YG Entertainment and the Ministry of Science, ICT, and Future Planning.  (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • In related news, here’s an interview with Korea’s minister of science (and ICT and future planning) talking way too much about “creative economy” (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Trying to save 8,000 year old rock art that spends half the year underwater because of a dam (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Very fun article about the rise of tattoos in Korea. I’ve already regretted never writing that feature on tattoos in Korea for Newsweek, back when I had the chance. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Korean Film Archive has released a list of the top 101 Korean films. Was supposed to be 100, but they gave 101. Whatever. Still, it’s an interesting list. Plus the KFA is going to restore the classic film Aimless Bullet (aka Obaltan) — I have it on DVD and, while interesting, the quality is pretty terrible. Plus the KFA has found a copy of a music documentary/film from 1968; I really want to see this and hope it is full of good performances by the singers of the day. (Korea JoongAng Daily)

Meanwhile, the weather outside is frightful. No, we’re not experiencing brutal cold or a winter snowstorm. But we are in the middle of a huge chemical fart from China. Thanks China for messing up the air!

From the KMA:


Strangely, if appropriately, the Korean website for those color maps of the pollution is called “Kaq“, for Korea Air Quality. But it sounds like “cack“, because that’s pretty much the air quality today.

And the Oscar goes to …

Ah, the Academy Award silly season is here already. As usual, my only real interest here is for best foreign film. And my top choice among this year’s nominees is …

Oh, that’s right — there isn’t a category for foreign film. Just “foreign language” film. But governed by the most arcane, backward set of rules possible. One nominee per country … So if it is a “foreign language” category, why bother restricting nominees by nation?

Anyhow, the Oscars are shite and we’re all idiots for paying attention.

Social Mobility in Korea

A couple of thoughts on the decline of social mobility in Korea, which has been in the headlines and opinion pages lately. In case you had not heard, a survey by a government think tank showed that fewer Koreans are exiting poverty today compared to eight years ago. In 2005, 31.7% of low-income households rose to middle- or high-level, but in 2012, only 23.5% did so.

Troubling, to be sure. But it is interesting to note how little of this problem in Korea is about wages. Korea has one of the most equal wage structures in the world — before taxes. After taxes, it drops to 20th (just ahead of Canada), but back in the mid-00s, it fell to 17th, so a bit of a drop relative to other countries.

The big problem in Korea is not so much wages as it is the rising cost of housing and education, and the debts that come with them. Which is why it drives me nuts listening to newspapers, other pundits and the government talk about “re-starting the moribund real estate market.” The real estate market is already overpriced and harming Korean families; driving prices higher is insanity.

Education is crazy, too. Or, rather, schooling is. As I have written before, that is more about rent seeking and high barriers to entry in the labor market than it is about any real interest in education. Until Korea fixes how its companies and leading the government hires and promotes, nothing will change about its universities; and until people’s perspectives on going to university changes, nothing about its education system will change. Like the real estate market, this is basic economics — you have an inelastic, high-demand resource (the top 3 schools), so everyone is pursuing the same objective. And, as you learn on page 1 of your economics textbook, in a perfectly free market, profits drive to zero.

It’s worth noting, though, that while Koreans are very sensitive to inequality, they also remain very hopeful that things will be better for their children. That optimism is very important.

UPDATE: Oh, and keeping Korea’s well-educated women out of the workforce isn’t helping any.


Between the Lines: Editorial Cartoons — Daebak

One of the more difficult parts of the day at my newspaper is working on the editorial cartoons. For one thing, Korean editorial cartoons tend to be somewhat more oblique than the cartoons in the West. They also can contain a lot of information that is difficult to convey quickly to a non-Korea expert. And language issues — puns, nuance, etc. — make getting a usable translation very difficult. And, to make things just that much harder, the cartoon tends to come to us late in the evening, when deadlines are rushing up loudly and madly like the edge of a waterfall.

Which leads me to the point of this post, today’s editorial cartoon in the Korea JoongAng Daily:

In the original cartoon, President Park says “대박” (Daebak), or “Jackpot!,” as it has been most commonly translated (including in our lead story).

In response, the DP Chairman Kim Han-gill says “소박 맞았다” (Sobak majassda). Sobak being the opposite of Daebak. The idea being, the president is bragging she’s a winner, while Kim complains he’s a loser (because President Park did not mention anything about appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the National Intelligence Service).

But how to express that in a cartoon? “I’m a winner” and “I’m a loser” is way too literal and dull. “Jackpot” is a fun word, but what would Kim say in response? I was toying with “I got jacked”, but that just wasn’t funny and too open to misinterpretation. In the end, we ran out of time and went with “I did it” and “You did me in,” in a vague attempt at parallelism.

Sadly, about two hours later, as I was relaxing at home, I finally thought of the right response for Mr. Kim.

President Park: “Jackpot!”
Kim: “Busted…”

Ah well. Better luck next time. Because in the bottomless well that is journalism, there is always a next time.


From Mirotic in Toronto to Mirotic in K-Pop

Okay, I have written another column for the JoongAng Sunday. They just published the Korean version so, in case anyone is interested, I’m publishing the original English version here. I hope you enjoy.

While I was in my hometown of Toronto last month, a bakery opened called Mirotic. No, not named after the Montenegrin basketball player who plays for Real Madrid. It was named for the DongbangSingi song.

It has now been 18 months since Psy’s “Gangnam Style” blew up all over the world, putting Korean pop music in the public consciousness in a way few would have predicted. Certainly for someone like me, who writes professionally about K-pop, my career has changed a lot.

For years when I told people that I wrote about K-pop, I would generally get very confused looks returned — not always to be sure, but quite often. A few die-hard fans aside, K-pop did not mean anything. Then came Psy.

I did not feel any different, certainly not any smarter, but suddenly I was being asked to give a lot more speeches and write more articles and books. Suddenly, when I said I write about K-pop, eyes would open in recognition — generally followed by being asked if I know Psy (then disappointment when I admitted I never met him).

In many ways 2013 was a strange year for Korean pop music in the West. On one hand, another Psy song, “Gentleman,” was once again the biggest YouTube song of the year. But somehow, most people considered it disappointing — very strange for 600 million views, and the seventh-biggest Youtube music video of all time, but still disappointing.

But in terms of sales, “Gangnam Style” beat “Gentleman,” even in 2013. “Gentleman” was the No. 2 K-pop seller in America, and No. 3 was Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby,” a song from 2012.

G-Dragon’s album “Coup d’Etat” did crack the Billboard 200 album chart, but making it just to No. 182. On the other hand, G-Dragon was the No. 9 World Album Artist of the year, followed by ShinEE at No. 10.

One of the big problems is that we just don’t have a good vocabulary to talk about fame and popularity in the pop-music world of 2014. What does it mean to have a huge YouTube video but relatively few sales? Or to be popular enough to have concerts for tens of thousands of fans all over the world, but not enough to chart. Clearly, the ideas of music that worked from Elvis to Justin Timberlake don’t really apply to music in 2014.

One thing that is clear to me is how much better K-pop has gotten musically. For instance, most of it is in tune now. Re-listening to songs from a decade ago, it is shocking how much of it was flat and pitchy. A musicologist friend of mine is convinced K-pop used to sound out of tune because that mirrors how children sing, and producers wanted K-pop to be cute and childish. I’m not sure how true that is, but I am definitely happy that it is more in-tune today.

As with so much of Korean culture, the more it mixes with the world, the stronger it gets. It is scary, competing with the world’s best, but it also produces great results (and, in a globalized pop culture world, plagiarizers get caught so quickly, it’s surprising anyone even tries anymore).

For me, I think 2013 had a lot of really good songs. SM Entertainment’s Henri Lau is awesomely talented, and his “1-4-3” was incredibly catchy. Jay Park keeps putting out very good music. It was terrible that 2PM’s wonderful “A.D.T.O.Y” did not do better on the charts. JYJ’s Junsu had a very fun song with “Incredible.” Spica’s “Tonight” was very addictive and their voices were solid. Ailee also had a great voice and some good songs.

But personally, I think the best K-pop song of 2013 was one of the less accessible, CL’s “Baddest Female.” To me, it’s the kind of song that gets overlooked when it comes out, but four or five years in the future, when fans are at a concert, that’s the song that they go craziest for. It was unique and full of attitude.

I was also really heartened to see Busker Busker once again do so well, and Tiger JK and Yoon Mirae, too.

But clearly 2014 is going to be a fascinating year for Korean music. I cannot wait to hear what comes next.

Happy New Beer!

From time to time in the past, I used to review the state of Korean beer. Sometimes in depth.

Although I do not drink much beer these days, I have seen some improvements in the beer scene, so I thought I would start out 2014 talking about our hoppy friends. These aren’t terribly new, but they were new to me, so here are my late-to-the-party thoughts.

Hite-Jinro has come out with two Queen’s Ale options, Blonde and Extra Bitter, and I’m shocked to say that both are quite decent.

I had the Blonde with some pizza the other day and was very happy with the taste and aroma. Not overpowering, but it had substance. Then I had the Extra Bitter with some Kkongchi Jjigae my wife cooked, and the stronger taste of this beer worked very well with the thick stew. Neither was a “wow,” but both were more than drinkable.

Hite has also added a variation to its Max line, calling it Max Special Hop Oktoberfest (or something like that. This was less exciting than the Queen’s, although better and more flavorful than the usual Max.

(Now I look forward to someone telling me this is just the same Max and I was taken in by the placebo effect. But hopefully not).

I also see that Wa Bar, the Korean bar franchise, has its own brand of Dunkel beer, made in Germany and sold under the Wa name in Korea. But it is nearly impossible to find the beer mentioned on the Wa Bar website, and the photo I did find does not match what I bought. So if Wa thinks so little of its beer, I’m not about to rock the boat.

Luckily, there are plenty of places to go in Korea these days for microbrews, like the ever-growing Booth franchise and Magpie, and Canada’s Alley Kat Pale Ale is wildly available. If only I still drank beer …



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