Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: February 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Coffee proves hotter than smut

I’ve long joked that the only force stronger than “adult entertainment” in Korea is coffee. Many people over the years have tried and failed to institute moral campaigns against red-light districts, massage parlors, room salons and other vices in Korea. But once the nice, modern coffee shops move into a neighborhood, they push out all those bad things.

Turns out that it’s not just a joke. The Korean JoongAng Daily has a story today about how the number of coffee shops in Seoul have been increasing by 16.7% a year since 2008, but bars have declined by 1% and adult-entertainment facilities have dropped 2.4%.

My one quibble with the article is the continued myth that Koreans used to be shocked by the price of a Starbucks coffee. Coffee shops in Korea, even pre-Starbucks, were surprisingly expensive — and back then, most offered just instant coffee. Just because offices and universities had 100 won coffee machines doesn’t mean that coffee shops were cheap.

K-Pop’s dirtiest year ever (kind of)

What’s going on with all the smutty English in K-pop these days? First we had Rain’s comeback, where he sang “30 Sexy.” But, really, it sounded much more like “dirty sexy.”

Then Ga-in had her excellent new single “F*** You”. Great song, fascinating video … but still it is strange to be in a convenience store and hear this lovely voice telling me to fuck off.

And now Park Ji-yoon is back at her disco-y best (and, let’s face it, disco Park is an amazing look) with the “Soul Train”-fused video for “Beep.” It’s a fun song and Park looks amazing in it. HOWEVER, in the middle of the song, she suddenly sings “What what what what” about 50 times in quick succession, and with each iteration, the “T” increasing elides with the next words and starts to sound like “twat”. I swear, I’m not just being a perve.

The “what” part kicks in at the 1:40 mark. Anyhow, it’s an amazing video and good song, so you should check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Since I’m mentioning music, you should also listen to the totally-not-dirty song “Paint It Gold” by Glen Check. It is just a fun, amazing tune … with a bit of MGMT, some Two Door Cinema Club, maybe some OK Go and some Daft Punk. Whatever its provence, it’s one of their best.

Korea’s real estate: 6 impossible things before breakfast

While there is a lot to like about Korea, its economy, people, etc., there are two major issues that totally stymie it: education and real estate. They are the two biggest contributors to inequality in Korea. And they are the two areas that are completely wrapped up in their own mutually exclusive paradoxes, basically because everyone is so busy arguing over how to treat the symptoms that they do not understand the disease.

Today, real estate is back in the spotlight, as the government wants to relax anti-speculation regulations in order to jumpstart the real estate market. Good luck with that.

All this talk of Korean real estate being “hot” or “in a slump” completely misses the point because the housing market here is besieged by two contradictory needs:

  1. To lower prices, so apartments are more affordable.
  2. To keep prices rising, so the real estate market stays active.

Making matters worse, Koreans overwhelmingly use their apartment as their primary investment/savings tool, much moreso than in most countries (74% in Korea versus 42% in Canada or 25% in the United States). So to burst the bubble would ruin a lot of people.

But apartments in Korea are so expensive — the average home price is 7.7 times the average income (versus 3.5 in the United States), and that’s just nationwide, in Seoul that ratio is much worse — that rising prices would ruin a lot of other people.

Clearly, the country needs to deleverage household debt, but everyone cannot deleverage at once without causing a recession. So what is the solution? I’m no economist, but the only thing I can see would be letting inflation rise. Like in many countries these days, Korea’s inflation is persistently running below expectations, a sure sign that demand is slack. But if the country were able to get inflation up to, say 4%, then over a few years, that home price-to-income ratio could come down without reducing household spending.

Or maybe there are other solutions. But clearly, continually yo-yoing between pushing up the real estate market and then clamping down on it is a strategy doomed to fail.

Name of Thrones

Ahn Chul-soo has announced the name of his new political party, “새정치연합” — or, if you don’t know hangul, “Sae Jeongchi Yeonhap.” Literally, that’s “New Political Coalition.”

But for some reason, he has decided to call his party the “New Political Vision Party” in English. Why? Was something wrong with “Coalition”? Why have “vision” only in English?

Maybe it does not matter, but after years of “Ministry of Knowledge Economy” and “Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning” (not to mention “creative economy”), I live in fear of what future administrations will bring to their ministry and policy names.

Music’s changing soundscape in Korea

I was poking around some old files the other day, when I came across an article I wrote for Billboard nearly a decade ago about MP3 players in Korea. The magazine ended up merging it with a similar story by Steve McClure about the Japanese MP3 player market, but most of my stuff made it into the published version.

Given the huge success of Samsung smartphones and other Korean devices around the world, not to mention the rise of Apple products in Korea, I thought people might be amused to read it:

The picture shows a model taking a bite out of an apple. It is part of an advertising campaign to promote the latest iriver-brand digital music player, the H10, by South Korean audio company ReignCom. The tag line is “Sweeter one.”

This ad illustrates the tough fight Apple Computer faces in Southeast Asia’s digital portable audio market.

Japanese and South Korean electronics companies are meeting the challenge posed by the extraordinary popularity of Apple’s iPod–in their home markets and elsewhere–with a new generation of portable players.


In South Korea, the primacy of flash-memory digital music players made it one of the few territories in the world where the iPod did not dominate, until this year. At its peak, in 2003, ReignCom claimed to have more than 50% of the South Korean portable-music-player market.

But like other South Korean electronics firms, ReignCom saw its market share slide when the low-priced iPod shuffle arrived.

Now these firms are slashing prices and adding features to their portable players to win back consumers.

ReignCom went so far as to run high-profile ads in local newspapers March 1–Korean Independence Day–calling for a “patriotic war” against the iPod.

“Our overall branding strategy is based on product innovation,” iriver director of brand marketing Hanna Young says. The H10 is still about $30 more expensive than the iPod mini, but it has a built-in FM tuner, color screen, voice recorder and digital-photo slide-show capability.

Joining the fray is South Korean heavyweight Samsung Electronics, which has declared its ambition to be the world’s top seller of portable music players by 2007. Samsung sold 1.7 million MP3 players worldwide in 2004 and is aiming for 5 million this year.

The whole story is here.

Strangely, though, Billboard took out my original lede, which mentioned Reigncom’s ad campaign that used porn actress Jenna Jameson. Maybe they were shy?

Anyhow, walking around Seoul these days, you can’t help but notice all the music stores. However, unlike in the 1990s, when they all sold, you know, music, now music stores mostly sell headphones and DJ equipment. So I guess young people are still spending as much as ever on the music they love, but they’re just spending it in totally different areas — in the tech instead of the content.


Random Seoul stuff

So, I was walking around Seoul a few days ago, dropping off copies of K-Pop Now to some of the companies that helped me out with the book. When I went to Sidus HQ (home of Jay Park), I was surprised to see they had found a new home. Their longtime location, close to the COEX Mall in Samseong-dong, was pretty drab. But their new building (about one subways stop away) is really swank.

Sadly, it was also too big for my lousy camera. But the building really does look like an impenetrable fortress. Finding the entrance was not easy.


Here is a view from the interior stairwell:

I then took a ride in the subway, where I discovered an ad for a plastic surgery clinic — for men. How common are they?

(Sorry for being out of focus … I was trying not to creep out the people sitting there).

I thought I found another one in the same car, but it turns out this ad is focusing on women getting surgery:

It reads, “Boyfriend quietly, I am on my knees, begging you to recommend me the place…” (meaning the place where his girlfriend got her surgery).

A bit later, I took a walk along the Cheonggyecheon stream. In wintertime, it is a bit sparse, but on the plus side, there was almost no one there. Very peaceful for the middle of Seoul.

Of course, the last time I took a photo of the Cheonggyeocheon, when I returned to Korea last summer, it looked like this:

Starbucks nation

I can remember when the first Starbucks opened in Korea — just outside of the front gate of Ehwa Womans University (sic). Reportedly, it was then the only Starbucks in the world with a smoking section.

Anyhow, I was looking for a Starbucks to meet someone for an interview, and this is what Shinchon/Hongdae looks like now:

And Jongno/downtown Seoul:


And all of Seoul:

K-Pop PR Now

So my publisher, Tuttle, made an official press release a couple of days ago for K-Pop Now!. Very exciting.

Or maybe not so exciting. But, still, word needs to get out, so I suppose the press release is a logical step.  But it is nice to see Tuttle is now saying April 7 is the date the book should be available (up from April 29, which is what says).

Also nice to see giveaways ramping up. If you are in the Philippines, here is a giveaway happening at the National Book Store (runs until Feb. 24). Hopefully we’ll have a lot more like that to announce before too long.


PUST and North Korean science

After calling that BBC documentary on the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology a “must-see,” I think maybe I should elaborate a bit on what I meant. Because I certainly did not mean that the doc was particularly brilliant. In fact it had a lot of problems. However, if you are interested in North Korea and are able to filter out the typically British sensationalism, then it was more useful.

Like so many British journalists who go to the North, they did not go as journalists. They went as guests of the 2nd International Conference of PUST. And while I’m fairly sure the PUST people who invited them knew what they were up to, their report caused more than a few difficulties for the school.

For a much more insightful look at PUST, I would recommend Richard Stone’s writings for the AAAS’s Science magazine.

Unfortunately, most Science stories are locked behind a paywall. But on Jan. 18, Stone wrote an interesting profile of and Q&A with Joseph Terwilliger, the 48-year-old statistical geneticist who helped Dennis Rodman return to North Korea. He also taught at PUST for three weeks last summer, and if I may excerpt:

I viewed this as a great opportunity to experience the DPRK as a resident, and also to help build a positive and trusting relationship with people in the DPRK, a necessary prerequisite for some future scientific exchanges. I viewed my role there as one of showing the positive side of the American people to a population who has heard
mostly negative stereotypes about us.
I engaged the students, taught them scientific critical thinking, and showed an understanding of their society and culture which most foreigners do not even try to get into. I spoke Korean with their grammatical styles and their accent, and I showed familiarity with their culture. Students all wrote me very sweet notes attached to their final exams about how they really appreciated my efforts to understand their country and needed to think twice about their opinions of the American people as a result of our interactions.


Science, music, sports, culture, academics all have the potential to build bridges between people with no risk to government and no political overtones, and I hope that I will be able to help build such bridges between our countries in the future, using the trust and connections I have built with them over the past several years.

For more on Terwilliger and North Korea, there is this article in the Helsinki Times. And here is Stone’s feature on the opening of PUST from Science (but reprinted at 38 North).

And I just found the Maclean’s article on Michael Spavor, who was also quite involved in the Rodman trip. Spavor is someone I first met around … oh, 1999? It’s great that he’s had such success with the DRPK. Anyhow, Spavor’s Twitter feed is here.

Finally, because the North Korean accordion version of Aha’s “Take On Me” was so popular, here is their latest, a cover of Aha’s “The Sun Always Shines on TV”:

A-ri-a-ri-rang, Here-I Here I am …

Just a little update on what is going on with me and my own work. I started a regular gig this week as a guest on Arirang Radio’s Sunnyside Up. It’s on 7-9am weekdays, and my segment airs around 8am an Wednesdays. Host Jenny Cho is very nice and the whole crew looks unusually solid. I’m quite happy to be on board.

They don’t seem to update their Audio on Demand feature much, but you can listen to the station in realtime here.


UPDATE: Oops. Forgot to mention that I also got a plug in the most recent Canadian embassy newsletter in Korea. You can download it here.


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