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.
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:
To lower prices, so apartments are more affordable.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!”
Ah well. Better luck next time. Because in the bottomless well that is journalism, there is always a next time.
Well, it looks like Yongsan’s electronics market, Jeonja Land, has seen better days. I took a walk there a couple of days ago, looking to pick up a couple of things, in what was probably my first trip there in five years. It wasn’t pretty. I guess the Internet age and online shopping has pretty much killed the need for a giant cluster of electronics (especially overpriced electronics sold by surly, dodgy shopkeepers).
On the other hand, there are more old vinyl shops on the second floor than ever. That’s pretty cool.
Yongsan’s old main building (where, if memory serves, I bought a 166 MHz computer for around $1,000 back in 1998) is all closed now. It is only open so you can access the walkway to Yongsan Station.
Here’s the biggest building in Korea.
Well, it would have been, if the development project hadn’t fallen through.
Even the new electronics market in the main Yongsan Station building is not in very good shape. The area set aside for electronics keeps getting smaller, while other types of shopping move in and take up the slack.
After shopping I did some walking around in the stretch from Yongsan to Seoul stations. Most of the old colonial buildings are gone now (not that they were in great shape before), but you can find a few here and there. I think what I like most about that neighborhood is the random things you run across. Like this Lotte E&C site, which apparently uses some old building.
It’s a neighborhood full of these sorts of little alleys, with a mix of old buildings and exposed wires.
And, as an added bonus, here’s a great door. Yes, up there on the third floor, with the little gate in front of it. I can only assume there used to be a fire escape there or another building or the like that was torn down.
That’s all. Just a random walk and a bit of shopping in a cool part of town that has seen better days.
Against my better judgment, I descended into the heart of Hongdae last Saturday evening. I mean, I like the Hongik University area a lot, but Saturday night the center of that neighborhood can get a bit out of control.
But Saturday, the Sangsang Madang arts space was holding a screening of the short films by Namkoong Sun, a talented young filmmaker, so I decided to check it out. You might know her music videos for Byul.org (“Pacific” and “Secret Stories Told by a Girl in an Opium Den”), as well as Neon Bunny and others. The screening was good fun, and several actors from her shorts showed up.
The after party was evidently going to go a lot later than I had the energy for, so I excused myself around 11 and took a walk through Hongdae, just to check out the neighborhood and see what it is like these days. No surprise, things were pretty crazy. Can you believe that, way back in the late 1990s, you could hit most of the Hongdae bars in an evening (well, at least the good ones)? But somehow the neighborhood keeps growing.
The park was, as usual, full of people and music. Perhaps this sign is as good a metaphor for Hongdae as anything:
It reads, “So not to inconvenience local residents, please no more live music in the park after sunset.” This photo was taken about 11:30pm, as yet another band started a set.
Anyhow, what I was there, a group called Monster People were playing. They are quite good — kind of an Interpol-like modern rock sound — so if you have the chance to catch them, I quite recommend it. Here’s some of their music over on Soundcloud:
The vibes were all pretty good that evening, at least while I was there. People were pretty blitzed, but I guess drunks don’t get belligerent and start fights until after midnight.
Looking at all the changes to Hongdae, the explosion of restaurants and cool things, I think I might start blogging about the neighborhood with some regularity. Every time I walk down an alley, I’m amazed by what I’m finding (in a good way, mostly). It’s fun to be back.
I was just checking out the lineup of musicians and acts playing at this year’s SXSW in Texas and was really amazed by the Korea presence this year — 10 Korean artists, not including Korean-American musicians. In 2010, I think there was just one.
There is also Far East Movement, with the Korean-American quotient. And, of course, there are plenty of other Asian acts, from Japan and around the continent.
The important thing, imho, is how Korean groups are increasingly getting out of Korea and playing around the world. That sort of exposure — exposing the bands to new audience and exposing new audiences and acts to the bands — is so important to developing the Korea scene. That sort of thing is a big part of what made Korean movies so good, 15 or 20 years ago. It’s great to see music doing the same.
Anyhow, Galaxy Express played at SXSW last year, too, when they scores a pretty cool mention in the New York Times. And once again, they will be going on a tour after the festival, hitting 25 shows in a dozen states (or so says their Facebook page). I’ll post the full schedule once I hear about it.
Last year was a great one for Korean pop music, but it was also excellent for indie music and other non-pop stuff in Korea. I only spent a couple of weeks in Korea this year, but it was clear from the shows I went to and people I talked with how vibrant the scene is these days (not to mention the music I downloaded and listened to). Back in 2008, when I started the Korea Gig Guide, I had this feeling that the indie scene was growing and getting stronger, like it was in the late 1990s. These days it is stronger still, continuing to grow bigger and more interesting.
Sadly, though, I don’t have a big list of my favorite new releases. For yet another year, I focused my energies in older Korean music, thanks to a huge batch of old records a friend digitized for me. I’m pretty proud of my collection of Korean rock, folk, and pop from the 1960s and ’70s now (thanks mysterious friend!). A related highlight of my year was meeting the great singer Kim Choo-ja. She and her husband nicely opened their home to me, and so I was able to absorb several hours of stories and good stuff.
As for new releases, the best of the year was probably Jambinai’s first full-length release, Différance (iTunes, Amazon). While not a fan of their more hardcore-tinged experiments with electric guitar, their core sound — driving postrock played on Korean traditional instruments — was as great as ever.
There was plenty of fun electro-based music last year, such as Glen Check (I particularly liked the single “84″) and Neon Bunny (her new EP Happy End was all quite fun). Love X Stereo is pretty good, too.
I am not a huge Telepathy fan, but their new version of “Flying White Pillow,” recorded for Fred Perry, was really intriguing, showing signs of growing into something more (a live show I saw of theirs in May backed up that impression).
And there were new released by 3rd Line Butterfly, Galaxy Express, and other big names.
But, as I said, I spent more time listening to old music, so I’m sure I missed a lot.
One of the coolest stories in 2012 was definitely Busker Busker, the Cheonan trio that appeared on an American Idol-esque TV music contest and somehow overcame all the producers’ preconceived notions of how the program was supposed to run, becoming perhaps the most popular group of the year. Yes, K-pop still dominates Korea, but the success of Busker Busker — a real band, playing real music — was one of the brightest rays of sunlight to shine through the bubblegum clouds in a long time.
(Not that there is anything wrong with bubblegum … I just value diversity).
Much more authoritative than my opinions, though, are the smart folks at Weiv, Korea’s longtime online music publication. They have put together another solid (and eclectic) list of the year’s top Korean music:
Best of all, my publisher allowed me to make one small but important change to the e-book edition. At last we have the dollar-won exchange rate specified in the text. When I wrote the book, it was at the unusually strong 800 won/dollar level, which made some of the numbers seem a bit odd (soon after, it fell to 1,200 won/dollar, and today is still less than 1,100 won/dollar).
Big thanks to everyone who has already bought a copy. And thanks to all who read my articles and blogs — I really appreciate the support and I hope to keep you interested.
K-Pop Now! takes a fun look at Korea’s high-energy pop music, and is written for its growing legions of fans. It features all the famous groups and singers, and takes an insider’s look at how they have made it to the top.
Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music and Internet Culture is the only English-language book to examine the whole of Korea's entertainment industry and how it became such a powerhouse over the past 15 years. With profiles of many of Korea's top stars (including Lee Byung-hun and Rain), Pop Goes Korea features chapters on movies, music, television, comic books, the Internet, and more.
To buy your own copy of Pop Goes Korea, you can check out these websites: