Tag Archives: South Korea

South Korea: Anger continues over ferry tragedy


Dear friends,

please find below my follow up article published by Red Flag at the continuing and growing protests in the wake of the Sewol tragedy against the Park Geun-hye government.  Since this article was first written and was published, there has been a second weekend of mass protests with 30,000 turning out once again to protest government authorities and crony capitalism.  As with the first mass protest/vigil of 30,000 mentioned in my article, the second mass protest which also attracted more than 39,000, several hundred protestors were arrested, including trade union leaders.

in solidarity,


Korean-ferry protestsMore than 30,000 South Koreans joined a candlelight protest on 17 May to demand that the right wing Park Geun-hye government take responsibility for the Sewol ferry disaster.


The Sewol capsized on 16 April with 476 people on board. However, due to a botched rescue attempt by government authorities, only 170 people survived.

One month after the tragedy, public anger has continued to grow as corruption within the shipping industry has gained broader public attention.

The protest was the latest in a series of demonstrations that have taken place since late April and was just one of several anti-government protests. More than 200 people were arrested at various events over the weekend.

On Saturday afternoon more than 6,000 teachers held their own action. The teachers, members of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, demanded an independent investigation.

One teacher told the Korean Herald: “Park’s excessive focus on deregulation was why the entrepreneurs paid no attention to the pricey safety measures. The president is using her unparalleled powers to protect the large corporations’ profits, not the lives of citizens.”

Two days earlier, on 15 May, more than 15,000 teachers released a statement critical of Park and her government. In response, the Education Ministry threatened disciplinary action, accusing teachers of violating laws that prohibit collective action unrelated to their jobs.

The threats come on the back of the ministry ordering education offices around the country to identify and take action against 43 teachers who posted messages on the Presidential Office website. They called on Park to step down and accused the government of trying to censor the media in order to prevent critical reports.

Former newsroom chief Kim Si-gon of KBS, one of South Korea’s three main television broadcasters, has also publicly accused the Presidential Office of attempting to prevent critical reports being aired about the bungled rescue.

According to Kim, KBS president Gil Hwan-young had ordered reporters not to be too critical in their reporting, citing orders from the Blue House (the executive office and residence of the president).

On 19 May, journalists from the network staged a one-day strike denouncing the interference.

Crony capitalism and the South Korean ferry tragedy


Dear friends,

I am a little late in posting this up.  Please find below my article published by Red Flag which looks at the underlying structural cause of the Sewol ferry tragedy in South Korea.  On April 16, the Sewol ferry  was travelling between Incheon and Jeju Island when it capsized, resulting in the death of more than 300 of the 476 passengers on board. Nearly all those who died were teenagers – students from the one high school , who were in the same grade. They were participating in a school field trip at the time.  Amongst the other casualties were teachers from the school, at least one crew member and several other passengers.

The tragedy has rocked South Korea to its foundations and has been terribly heartbreaking and enormously sad.  In the past few weeks, there has been increasing outrage at the Park Geun-hye government due to the bungled rescue operation, the lack of safety protocols in place nationally to deal with such disasters, as well as at crony capitalism and government- industry corruption which lie at the core of this tragedy.  Many of the families of the students have begun to stage protests and there has been mass protests in Seoul and elsewhere. Most recently more than 2000 students held a candle light vigil and protest in remembrance of their friends and on the weekend more than 30,000 people attended the candlelight vigil and protest in Seoul.  In the last few days more than 6,000 school teachers also took to the streets to protest against the Park Geun-hye government as a result of the Sewol tragedy and more than 15,000 teachers have signed a statement criticising the government.


The tragic death of more than 300 South Korean students last month has revealed starkly the menace of neoliberal economics. The students were aboard the Sewol ferry, on a school trip, when it capsized with 476 passengers and crew on board.

Only 170 people managed to escape. Hopes for the remaining 306 soon dissipated in the wake of a bungled rescue attempt, which was too slow and hampered by bad weather. While the majority of bodies have been recovered, approximately 30 are still missing.

Nearly all the dead and missing are students from Danwon high school. The tragedy has sent shock waves throughout South Korea. Since 27 April, 1.5 million people have visited memorial altars around the country.

While many Western journalists have sought to promote racist Orientalist stereotyping blaming the tragedy on South Korea’s “Confucian society”, the root of the tragedy lies in crony capitalism.

Almost two decades of neoliberal policies have resulted in a sharp increase in irregular, temporary employment contracts with no job security and salaries that are, on average, 35 percent less than those of regular workers. Today, irregular workers make up 45 percent of South Korea’s workforce. The result is poor working conditions and the downgrading of safety awareness and practice.

In the case of the Sewol, 19 of the 33 crew members were irregular workers – including the captain.

The deregulation of South Korea’s shipping industry under the right wing Lee Myung-bak government (2008-2013) also resulted in a rise in unsafe practices. Deregulation extended ferry service periods from 20 to 30 years, allowing older ships such as the Sewol to continue operating.

A 29 April editorial in the Korean Herald noted the granting of reciprocal favours and a “revolving door between the government and shipping sector”. Industry jobs were granted to “former government officials, mostly from ministries that supervise and regulate shipping companies”.

In the wake of the tragedy, investigators have identified a collusive and corrupt relationship between government officials and the shipping industry, centring on the government-run Korean Register of Shipping, which is responsible for testing and certifying ships and carrying out routine shipment and safety inspections.

The immediate cause of the Sewol’s sinking was overloading and an unsecured cargo. The vessel was carrying up to three times its official cargo limit. According to investigators, since March 2013 the Sewol had carried excess cargo on its Incheon-Jeju route 139 times, resulting in almost US$3 million in profit for the owner, Cheonghaejin Marine Company.

Investigations also revealed unsafe practices on the company’s other ferries, including unsecured cargos and a lack of working life rafts. On 8 May, Cheonghaejin Marine CEO Kim Han-sik was arrested and charged with causing death by negligence.

Public anger over the tragedy, bungled rescue operation and government-industry corruption has continued to rise. On 28 April, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won announced his resignation. Bereaved families have staged several marches on the Blue House (the executive office and residence of the president) and on 10 May, thousands of students held a candlelight vigil and protest.

On May Day, tens of thousands of Korean workers also took to the streets to express their “sorrow and rage” at the disaster and at the neoliberal policies that caused it.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions in its May Day statement said: “Safety experts are now pointing to excessive deregulations, privatisation of public transport and emergency services, the use of precarious work arrangements and the corrupt appointment of officials in oversight agencies as causes of the Sewol tragedy.”

The union stated the root cause of the ferry tragedy was “capitalist greed and government support for it”.

K-Drama Review: The Return of Il Ji-mae


group iljimae

  • English title: The Return of Il Ji-Mae
  • Alternative English title: Moon River
  • Revised romanization: Dolahon Il Ji-Mae
  • Hangul:돌아온 일지매
  • Year released: 2009
  • Episodes: 24
  • Director: Hwang In-Roe, Kim Do-Hyung
  • Writer: Kim Kwang-Sik, Woo-yeong Ko (comic)

  • Based on the serial comic strip “Iljimae” by Woo-yeong Ko, which appeared in the Daily Sports from 1975-1977.

Moonriver-Il-woo Jeong.jpg Moonriver-Jin-seo Yun.jpg Moonriver-Min-jong Kim.jpg Moonriver-Hye-Young Jung.jpg
Jung Il-Woo Yoon Jin-Seo Kim Min-Jong Jung Hye-Young
Il Ji-Mae Wol-Hee Ku Ja-Myeong Baek-Mae

A Robin Hood story set in the Joseon period, the Return of Il Ji-mae is about an abandoned orphaned boy who grows up to fight corruption and greed and side with the poor and marginalised. The story is based on a manga/comic book hero, drawn from Chinese folk lore. While the drama offers all the fun and action of a Robin Hood story, it also avoids all the usual cheesiness that often goes hand and hand with such stories. Instead, it offers a beautifully told story which explores what it is to be human.
While it took me a few episodes to get into the drama, I soon fell completely in love with it.

Return of Il Ji-mae is blessed with a fantastic script, brilliant acting, gorgeous production, wonderful music, as well as reasonably positive gender politics in the portrayal of the female characters. The acting in the series is flawless, particularly from the two main leads and the two sub-leads. Jung Il-woo as Il Ji-mae is just brilliant.  He is an actor I already enjoyed watching, but he has now shot up to being one of my all time favourite Korean actors. This is the first drama I have seen Yoon Jin-seo in, but her depiction of Dal-yi and Wol Hee is just wonderful. Given she is playing two characters, she has done a wonderful job of giving them their own personalities and distinctiveness. I particularly love the fact that the drama also gives the two leads a realistic love story, devoid of all the dodgy gender politics found in many other kdramas.

Return of Il Ji-mae quickly climbed into the ranks of my top 5 Korean dramas. Without a doubt, I love the beauty and wistfulness of this drama, as well as the humour, adventure and nuanced story telling and acting. Definitely a 10 out of 10! My only serious criticism of the show is in relation to the action sequences – while the fight scenes are fantastic, diverse, well executed and a lot of fun, the wire work (at least in the early episodes) is rather amateurish. But if you can look past that in the first few episodes, you will probably also fall in love with the Return of Il Ji-mae.

Opening title sequence of Return of Il Ji-mae

Original Sound Track from Return of Il Ji-mae – Place of My Dreams by Yoon Jin Suh

KPop Idol Kim Jonghyun supports Transgender/LGBTI rights and Annyeong Student Protests


jonghyun-kim-jonghyun-15765435-700-900 JonghyunLGBT-575x431

As any KPop fan (and yes, I am one) will tell you, political statements and public political stances are something that KPop Idols usually steer away from.  For those not into KPop, the term “Idol” is used to described popular KPop performers and singers trained through South Korean talent agencies such as SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment.  During their training period, as well as their early years of performing, Kpop artists are tightly supervised by their management companies.  It has been estimated that the cost of “discovering” and training a Kpop “Idol” is around US$2.6 million dollars, so it is unsurprising that young Kpop artists are so tightly managed, to ensure that they do not get involved in any “scandals” or situation which may alienate them from their legion of fans and undermine their commercial marketability.  Thus Idol groups and singers are usually corralled by their entertainment company to stick to a fairly narrow line

However, this week two KPop idols made public their support for current student protests against privatisation and inequality in Korean society.  On December 15, Chansung from the Idol group, 2PM, tweeted to his (almost) 780,000 followers that he supported the “Annyeong” (Are you well?) protests, while Shinee’s Kim Jonghyun  – who has over 922,000 followers on twitter – changed his twitter profile photo this week to a hand written letter by a transgender student involved in the Anneyong protests. The note, written by the student, titled: “No matter what name you call us, we are not ‘Annyeong’ (well) highlights discrimination against the Transgender and LGBTI community in South Korea (for a full translation of the note, see below).

The student protests, known collectively as the “annyeong” Protests or “Are You Well? protests, have seen university and college students, as well as non-students take a stand against the privatisation of South Korea’s railroads and healthcare, as well censorship, electoral corruption and injustice within Korean society.

“Annyeong” is the Korean phrase which is commonly used in greetings to ask if someone is well or doing okay. As part of the protests, the protestors have carried and posted hand written notes with the phrase “I am not okay”, highlighting their opposition to the privatisation  attempts, as well as economic and social injustice and corruption.

The protests began on December 14, when a Korean University student, Joo Hyun Woo posted up a large handwritten poster on campus, asking if people were doing okay, because he wasn’t.  In his poster he addressed the strike by railroad workers protesting the government plan to privatise the Korean Railroad Corp.  He also addressed the issue of the accusations around a fixed presidential election and other acts of injustice and censorship taking place.  Joo’s action inspired other students who also began to write their own signs, expressing their unhappiness with the current political and economic situation in South Korea.  For the last week, students and their supporters have taken to the street with similar placards and signs.

anneyong 3 anneyong 4 anneyong 2Photos of Annyeong Protests via Netizen Buzz

Korea’s Netizen Buzz website has quoted several students on the protests:

One sociology major said, “Our society has difficulty differentiating between what is ‘different’ and what is ‘wrong’. We tend to overlook what is ‘wrong’ to be ‘different’. We need to be able to tell the government that it is ‘wrong’ to dismiss railroad union members for disagreeing with the privatization. I am here today because I refuse to stay silent. I hope that we will all be okay.”

Another student said, “Our college demands that we remain oblivious to issues regarding our government and society. We’re all just as frustrated (with this censorship) so I’m here today to say that I am not okay.”

Others said similar things to the line of, “I have to block the privatization of the railroads for my life to be okay”, “I am not okay because I am embarrassed to have my child born in this country”, “I am not okay because our society has taken away my right to express my anger towards injustice”, “Is a society just when I need to be brave just to have my voice heard?”, “I am not okay because I live in a society that censors me”…

The transgender student who wrote the note posted by Kim Jonghyun later revealed her identity and made it publicly known that he had contacted her about posting her protest note. The student,Kang Eun Ha, said she had been contacted by Jonghyun to let her know he was posting his note to his twitter profile and that he hoped that this would be okay and that she would not become the centre of unwanted attention due to his action.  Kang Eun Ha made public the exchange between herself and Jonghyun, in which he stated:

“I support you. As a celebrity, as a minority of a different sort facing the public, I also feel disappointment towards the world that does not accept difference. Of course, it can’t be compared to what you feel.”  In response, Kang Eun Ha replied:
Thank you so much. I don’t know with what words I can express my feelings…Thank you. Thank you so much. I will definitely stay strong. Please be careful of cold, and I hope you have a warm end of the year 🙂 Thank you!”

kang eun haImage via Omana They Didn’t Blog

South Korean society is still very conservative (as are a lot of countries) in relation to LGBTI rights.  So it should not be under estimated how much of a political and social “big deal” it is for an Idol star like Kim Jonghyun to take a public stance in support of Transgender and LGBTI rights in South Korea. It is something which very few public figures do, let alone young Kpop idol singers.

In September this year, one of the few openly gay film directors in South Korea, Kim Jo Kwang Soo and his partner, Kim Seung Hwan married publicly in order to draw attention to struggle of the South Korean LGBTI community for equal rights.  This month, Kim attempted to register his marriage but it was rejected.  Director Kim Jo Kwang Soo’s public campaign for equal rights is also noted in the Anneyong protest note posted by the Kang Eun Ha.

Here is a translation of Kang Eun Ha’s Anneyong protest note:

 No matter what name you call us, we are not ‘Annyeong’ (well)

Last April, the third attempt to enact anti-discrimination legislation was turned down because of those who loathe equality. In September, Kim Jo-kwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan publically held a same sex wedding for the first time in Korea. There were disturbances such as human excrements being thrown onto the stage, but Kim Jo-kwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan marched down the aisle with pride as to prove that “love is stronger than hate.” But a few days ago, their marriage registration was denied. Also, some people voiced ridiculous claims that textbooks should discuss the issue of the humans rights of sexual minorities as a topic you agree or disagree with.

Many of you who read this will think like this: how on earth does this concern me or the state of current affairs? But because I know him [Kim Jo-kwang-su], I can tell you this. Whether you are pleased with this or not, this is the story of the world that sexual minorities, including myself, live through, who dine, take classes, study, and have debates with with all of you. This is another side of the current affairs of the society we live in.

Yes, I am a sexual minority. I am a male to female transgender person and I am bisexual. I am a woman. I am of the “880,000 Won” generation. I am a college student. I am one of the inheritors of the working class. What more names can you call me by? There will be no end if you tried to enumerate them one by one. It’s not just me, but probably all of you are living in the present, being called by numerous names.

But I am not okay, not at peace at any moment, whichever name I am being called. Today’s Korean society not only can’t enact an anti-discrimination law, but discriminates against sexual minorities on a daily basis, throws rampant unfair criticism and hatred towards females, exploits the young generation, forces college students to be absorbed with employment instead of academics. Which name should I be called in order to be at ease?

Someone asked us this. Are you guys Annyeong, whether we are doing well. That’s what I’m saying. Are we all well when we’re relieved that anothers’ pain is “not mine,” growing accustomed to closing our eyes and blocking our ears in order to protect our own lives? How well can we be in a cold-hearted world when it continuously presses us to give up empathy?

I’m not saying that we all should pour out on the streets and start throwing stones. It’s just that, if this story of asking whether all of us living today are Annyeong (doing well) provides an opportunity to look into the face of the person next to you and call their name, I think this has been worthwhile. As the world becomes lonelier, I think, contrary to our belief, the way for us to become ‘well’ is nearby. Right now, please ask the person next to you, “Are you well?”

Translation of terms used in Kang Eun Ha’s note (via Omona They Didn’t blog):

T/N: Annyeong: the literal definition of the greeting is ‘a state of tranquility’

T/N: 880,000 Won Generation refers to the demographic of Korea in their 20’s that suffered employment instability around 2007. Multiplying the average paycheck of part time workers, 1,190,000 won (1130 USD), by the average salary rate for people in their 20s, 73%, results in 880,000 Won. This is the first amongst many generations in Korea to play the “Game of the Winner Takes All.”

This term was first used in the book 880,000 Won Generation, published in August, 2007. The author, Woo Suk-hoon says “Only the top 5% of people in their 20s will have a stable job above middle management and the others will live on part time employment with an average wage of 880,000 Won.” [naver encyclopedia/ MK Business News]