Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

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Check out Young-Hee & the Pullocho

I just added the first chapter of Young-Hee and the Pullocho to its page here on my website. So now you can check it out, for free, in whatever format you prefer — PDF, .mobi or ePub.

It’s just a few pages long, but it starts out in the middle of some action, so hopefully it will give you a sense of what’s in store in the rest of the story.


More Shinchon changes

It’s strange seeing parts of Korea that are so familiar to me change so rapidly. Not only is the Grand Mart getting a facelift, but an old part of Shinchon is also changing fast. Down the street, where the old rail bridge used to cross the big road, looks like it is about it get its park at last.

The rail bridge used to cast a pretty dark shadow over that stretch of Shinchon, and only old, lousy buildings abutted the noisy tracks. The bridge was torn down six or seven years ago (seen here in 2009 from Google Maps).

Shinchon 2009

Then the big ugly concrete anchors were taken out and the train line was buried and turned into a subway (Naver Maps: 2012).



Then the construction was covered over, but the land on top has been left to grow wild, with those same old buildings just sitting there — an old gopchang jeongol restaurant, a tiny vegetable stall, and some little, rundown places (Daum Maps, 2014).



Or, rather, they were just sitting there. Monday night, they were all gone.

Shinchon teardown

I guess this means they are finally getting around to building the long-promised park here. It’s already done by Daeheung Station to the east and is nearly done west of Hongik Station. Now they need to fill in the middle bit. Considering how much those completed sections have improved, I’m really looking forward to seeing how this stretch will change. It’s really perfect for some cafes and open spaces, the kind that Seoul so lacks.


Kim Jong-Pil remembers

When I came to Korea, it was still the era of the “three Kims” — Kim Young-sam (then the president), Kim Dae-jung (soon-to-be-president), and Kim Jong-pil (never president, but not for lack of trying). JP, as former head of the Korean intelligence service, was the most sketchy of the three, but both YS and DJ had found it necessary to play nice with him in order to win the presidency.

Now the Joongang Ilbo has published a series of articles based on two long interviews with KJP, mostly looking back at his early days, leading up to Park Chung Hee’s coup d’etat in 1961. Of course, JP portrays himself as a positive force in Korean history, opposing corruption and trying to foster democracy, and the Joongang doesn’t push back at all against his narrative. And despite being “compiled” by the Joongang, it’s still pretty rambling and disjointed. But, nevertheless, it’s still an interesting dialogue.


Writing a declaration of principles before the coup, and why anti-Communism was their No. 1 issue.

JP’s experiences at the outset of the Korean War

Meeting Park Chung Hee for the first time (who was related to JP by marriage … I didn’t know that).

On plotting the coup with Park Chung Hee

A Grand Facelift

Drab old Grand Mart in Shinchon appears to have gotten a fancy facelift. It’s about to re-open with a Spao on the ground floor, and the usual mix of restaurants upstairs. I guess it is mostly (entirely?) E-Land stuff, which isn’t a huge surprise, considering the mini-chaebol is headquartered just down the street.

New GrandMart2

New Grandmart Entrance

The Shinchon Grand Mart opened in 1994, even before I arrived in Korea. But ever since I started hanging out in Shinchon, it was the most depressing building in the area. The three-screen cinema that used to be housed in its upper floors was perhaps the worst I ever went to in Seoul, with tiny screens and terrible sound. That theater closed years ago, thanks to the rise of nice multiplexes everywhere, and the Grand Mart has generally be trending downward for years (although I do appreciate the supermarket in the basement).

Old Shinchon

The Grand Mart is located in the lower left of the above photo. As totally as the area has changed over the years, I think I recognize a couple of the buildings on the rotary, though — the Hongik Mungo bookstore and the Woori Bank building.

Vice takes K-pop seriously

Far too many interviews with K-pop groups in the Western media end up being rather infuriating. Sometimes that act like clueless fans, eating up all the marketing b.s. the group’s management throws at them. Or, worse, they ask a lot of insulting, condescending questions that are just as ignorant (usually under the guise of being “probing”, when really it is more about cultural ignorance).

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by this Vice interview with the group 4Minute. Jakob Dorof asks interesting questions and clearly knows the genre, without falling into the usual traps.

Of course, it helps that 4Minute are a bit more established now, letting them loosen up and be themselves a little. And it helps that their latest single and music video, for “Crazy”, are so good.

What have we here …

Happy day, as I found this parcel waiting for me when I got home.

Pullocho_Parcel2Pullocho parcel1

Seriously, I can’t really believe it’s an actual printed book. I’ve been so convinced that someone would go wrong, even at the last minute. And yet, here it is, in the flesh.

You know how some authors say their books are like their babies and they love them all the same? Well, that’s garbage — I love this book the most.


Young-hee and Pullocho—2 early reviews

So, Kirkus has come out with what I think is the first review of Young-hee and the Pullocho. But they didn’t seem terribly impressed. On the positive side:

Russell enriches his debut novel with many details borrowed from Korean folk tales. Fans of stories within stories will enjoy the tales included here,

But the reviewer also seems to think that young readers will find the contents confusing and did not like how I started things off in the middle of the action, then looped back. The word “mundane” was used.

One the other hand, a friend of mine gave the book to her 9-year-old daughter, who apparently enjoyed it immensely and did not find it confusing at all.

“It’s amazing!”  –  4.75/5 stars

The mom said she likes it, too, although her daughter raced ahead and read it all first. Funny that a middle-aged reviewer worried a book would be confusing, while a 9-year-old had no problem. I know which review I prefer.

My first Boing Boing (kind of)

It looks like my name has graced the iconic Boing Boing website for the first time. Yay.

Well, it’s kind of there. A little bit. Actually, the very cool Colin Marshall was invited to provide a bit of guest blogging. And for one of his first posts, he linked to his entire Korea series from his Notebook on Cities and Culture blog. So  there I am, fourth on the list.

Okay, it’s a pretty minor mention, but I’ll take it all the same. Thanks, Colin.

Phish Tales

Long wall of text coming. Sorry.

Anyhow, no, I’m not talking about the jam band. “Phish” as in trying to scam someone to get their personal information, like passwords or credit card details, usually so you can steal their money. Phishing is quite a problem in Korea, often turning up in news stories, but in the last week, two phishing incidents hit pretty close to home — some scammers tried to steal from a relative yesterday (let’s call her “F1″), and the friend of a friend actually lost 20 million won to another scammer earlier in the week (“F2″).

In each case, the method used was rather similar, so I wonder if this is a problem that’s getting worse, or if two incidents just happened to hit close to home. These phishing attacks are pretty devious. Like most grifts, they’re designed to take advantage of human nature and our personal blind spots.

The scam begins with a phone call. A guy claiming to be with the police says that you have been targeted in a bank fraud and identity theft. They’ve caught the guy, but there will be lawsuits and all sorts of legal hassles. They warn that not taking care of this right away could result in months of trouble and your bank accounts could be frozen for a time.

But then they offer a solution — if you go to the police’s website, you can register your information and protect yourself. Of course, the URL they mention is not “” and not the real Korean police website. It looks the same, but it is “.com”.

Throughout, they keep talking fast, trying to stop you from thinking, lulling you into a rhythm, taking advantage of most people’s tendency to want to please others and be respectful. They also know your name and same bits of personal information (easily bought on the black market), designed to make them sound official.

Luckily for F1, once they started saying they needed her to transfer them money, she got really suspicious. She said she needed to check their info and would call back, asking them for their names and departments so she could call them back. They said to use the number on her caller ID, but she said no, she’d call the main police switchboard and the operator could pass her along to them. They immediately hung up.

F2 was not so lucky, and sent a lot of money.

It’s easy to look down on people who get scammed, but grifters are smart at recognizing glitches in human nature, and “hacking” our behaviour, like how a computer hacker breaks into online networks. That said, there needs to be a lot more education in Korea about how to protect your personal information.

More annoying, though, was the response of the real police. F1 called the Mapo Cyber Police division, but their response was “If you didn’t lose any money, don’t worry about it.” They said they could do anything about it and weren’t interested in filing a report or gathering information. So lazy and amateurish (and, unfortunately, typical).

tl:dr — Don’t ever give away your personal information over the phone and be careful about online. Korea’s lack of information security is getting ever more dangerous.


‘C’est si bon’ with English subtitles

Well, it looks like Ode to My Father has just about finished its run in the theaters in Korea. Or at least an end to the screenings with English subtitles.

Fortunately, something potentially a lot more interesting is taking its place — a new movie about Korean music history titled C’est si bon. The movie is the story of the C’est Si Bon club, one of the more famous music clubs from the 1960s and ’70s, and one of the more famous acts of the period, Twin Folio.


Twin Folio was a folk duo, comprised of the classically trained Song Chang-sik and medical student Yoon Hyun-joo. Their first recording was a Shin Joong-hyun cover on the soundtrack to the movie Green Apple (which I believe has gone missing). They did a split album with the Pearl Sisters in 1969 and then an album of their own in 1970, but by then they had already broken up. Song went on to have a good solo career, becoming a noted songwriter.

Given that Twin Folio was a duo, but the movie has changed them to a trio for “dramatic purposes”, that’s a pretty big red flag. And I was pretty excited about Go-Go 70s, too, but that was a letdown. But who knows? Maybe we’ll get lucky this time.

Anyhow, if you want to see the movie with English subtitles, it is playing at the CGV theaters in Shinchon, Yeouido, Yongsan and Cine de Chef in Apgujeong.


  • Feb. 7 (Sat.) – 5:55pm


  • Feb. 7 – 5pm


  • Feb. 8 – 7:05pm

Cine de Chef:

  • Feb. 7 – 10:10pm
  • Feb. 8 – 10:10pm
  • Feb. 9 – 3:30pm
  • Feb. 10 – 10:10pm

Here’s the trailer, with English subtitles:

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