August 26, 2014

Call for Special Law to Investigate Sewol Ferry Tragedy Widens

Demand for a special law to investigate the Sewol Ferry Disaster has engulfed South Korea and overseas Koreans, symbolized by Kim Yeong-oh (photo above), a father of a student lost in the Sewol sinking, who is now on 44-day hunger strike for the enactment of the special law.

Despite demands by the Sewol victims' families (who are camping outside the presidential office until the demand is met), opposition party members, and concerned citizens calling for the special law, which would provide independent and impartial investigative and prosecutorial powers in pinpointing true causes of the incident, the Park Geun-hye government is not yielding to the demand, citing that no special law is needed.

Solidarity hunger strike has also spread, as Moon Jae-in, the presidential candidate in the last election, is now in his 8-day hunger strike, and other Koreans are doing one-day relay hunger strikes all over the world.

Sewol ferry sank on April 16, 2014, off the southwestern coast of Korea, with death toll of 294 on-board, most of whom were students from a particular high school en route to a school field trip. The incident revealed gross negligence and unpreparedness of large emergencies by South Korean authorities, filled with corruption and negligence in safety inspections and following safety protocols, lack of emergency procedure trainings and executions, and inept responses by maritime police and rescue units that prolonged the rescue time.  

July 9, 2014

Scenes of Daily Life in Korea from the 1900s

See more rare photos of scenes of daily life in Korea, during the early period of Japanese colonial rule, taken by a Japanese photographer. Some Korean commentators say that Japanese colonialism helped bring about modernization and industrialization to Korea, but that is no excuse for the brutal colonial occupation and subsequent division of Korea due to foreign interventions.

May 20, 2014

Anger Towards S. Korean Government's Handling of the Sewol Ferry Accident Escalates

Anger towards the South Korean Government's handling of the Sewol Ferry Accident is escalating within Korea and overseas Korean communities. Tens of thousands came out on the streets of Seoul in candlelight vigil in memory of the young victims of the tragedy, for which the government authorities responded by arresting some of them. Whereas President Park Geun-hye has apologized and has promised sweeping changes in governmental agencies handling responses to natural disasters, many Koreans feel that the government has not done enough to alleviate deficiencies in dealing with natural disasters and saving lives.

In the U.S., MissyUSA, an online community of Korean women, is leading a campaign to raise this issue by placing full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and staging protests in major cities with Korean-American community (the above photo shows a gathering in front of the Lincoln Memorial on May 18).

April 25, 2014

Ferry Tragedy in South Korea Brings Anger

The terrible accident of Sewol ferry in South Korea is likely to claim 302 victims, when the remaining bodies are all recovered. The sadness has turned into mass anger of the Korean people as it was revealed that the captain of the ship told the passengers to stay put in their cabins instead of following proper emergency procedures, also the captain and the crew were the first to abandon the ship and get onto the rescue ship -- leaving behind the passengers without any assistance or guidance from the crew.  The majority of the deceased are high school students from the same high school on their way to a field trip to Jeju Island, who "obeyed" the orders of the elders to remain in the lower decks -- while the ship was capsizing. The entire crew survived.

Moreover, the incident revealed gross negligence and unpreparedness of large emergencies by South Korean authorities, filled with corruption and negligence in safety inspections and following safety protocols, lack of emergency procedure trainings and executions, and inept responses by maritime police and rescue units that prolonged the rescue time. 

The government of President Park Geun-hye is also under fire for inept structural emergency planning and preparedness. The poor rescue effort and high casualty rate did not go well with the image of South Korea as a global economic powerhouse and advanced nation. South Korean authorities need to learn the lessons from this tragedy/debacle and institute fundamental and over-reaching changes to policies and practices of national and local emergency preparedness that value human lives and safety most of all.

April 18, 2014

Korean Bell Garden in Northern Virginia

Whereas Cherry Blossoms Festival in Washington, D.C. and Japanese gardens in U.S. parks such as the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco remind Americans of the link between Japan and the U.S., artifacts relating to Koreans on public display in the U.S. are very few. Only a handful of U.S. museums have a room devoted to Korean cultural artifacts.  An exception to this can be found in Northern Virginia,  where Korea Bell Garden was constructed within the Meadowlark Botanical Garden in Vienna, in commemoration of the Korea-U.S. relations. The garden consists of pagodas, walls, a peace bell, pond, totem poles, and plants native to Korea.

April 16, 2014

Military Spendings on the Rise in East Asia

According to the latest report ("Trends in World Military Expenditure") from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the global military spending has gone down 1.9% from the previous year, yet it is still a staggering figure of $1.74 trillion.

The spending by the U.S. has decreased due to its internal cuts in military spending, but the U.S. remains as the top spender with $640 billion. This amounts to whopping 37% of the total global military spending, equaling the combined spending of the next 14 nations after the U.S.  Despite worries expressed over the rising military power of China (second in military spending, 11% of global spending) and Russia (third in spending, 5% of global spending), the U.S. remains as the undisputed sole global military superpower, pouring huge sums of money in military spending despite domestic economic problems and the growing federal budget deficit.  Despite its proclaimed self-defense military, Japan is 8th in global military spending.

With the exception of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all regions of the world have seen dramatic increase in military spending, reflecting ongoing military tensions and political volatility. Southeast Asia saw 5% increase and Northeast Asia got 4.7% jump in military spending.

South Korea's spending increased to $33.9 billion, jumping from 12th place to 10th place in the global scale. This amounts to 2.8% of South Korea's GDP and 15% of government's budget. Despite portrayal of North Korea's military threat, Pyongyang's military spending amounts to $6 billion (25% of state budget), a mere 18% of South Korea's military spending. The continued tensions in the Korean Peninsula diverts much needed funds away from South Korea's domestic social program spending and North Korea's economic development.

Globally, there is a need to drastically cut down on military spending, freeing funds that can go towards programs aimed to curtail poverty, economic disparities, and environmental degradation.

February 10, 2014

"The Attorney": The South Korean Film Portrays South Korean Politics

For those unfamiliar with South Korean history and politics, this movie, now playing at theaters in major North American cities with English subtitles (opened Feb.7), may seem like an average-lawyer-turned-activist-fighting-for-justice film. But the lawyer portrayed in this film is no ordinary person -- he is former President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea.

The life/career-changing turn of events depicted in the film shows Roh's transformation from an ordinarily lawyer to a lawyer-activist devoted to defending cases related to human rights, social justice and fairness, which led him to the front of the pro-democracy civil movement in South Korea that ultimately brought down the military dictatorship, and all the way to the Blue House, the presidential office.

The film also highlights the pervasive and underlying obsession in the South Korean society with "national security." Due to harsh and polarized memories of the Korean War and the division of Korea, successive dictatorships and authorities in power in South Korea deemed convenient and easy to falsely label and prosecute all kinds of legitimate opposition and dissent as violations of South Korea's draconian National Security Law, in which, most times, legitimate protests and expressions are labelled as pro-North Korea and aiding North Korea and thereby requiring harsh and no-questions-asked prosecutions and punishments. In most of these cases, torture was used to extract false confessions that legitimized fabricated or exaggerated charges. These cases "surfaced" from time to time in order to quell down domestic dissent or to overshadow government's crisis or ineptitude.  Despite attempts to amend the National Security Law, it still stands and is applied even during democratic governments.

This surprising blockbuster, the first film directed by Yang Woo-suk, is currently on the sixth place on all-time attendance numbers in South Korea, which seems to resonate with the South Korean populace -- the older generations who have experienced this tumultuous period, as well as the younger generation born after this period. This movie starts out with comic moments, but turns into a serious court drama that depicts the dark era of political repression and human rights abuse in South Korea, as well as optimism for change and progress. This film is highly recommended to non-Koreans as it not only depicts the subtleties of South Korean politics but also tells of universal yearnings for justice and fairness.