Archive for the 'South Korea' Category


North Korea and the Panama Papers

The Panama Papers are a massive data leak from the tax-avoidance specialist firm, Mossack Fonseca (MF). And even the most amateur North Korea watcher knows that where ever there is secrecy and grey legal areas you are sure to find North Korea lurking around trying to make illicit trade deals and otherwise hanging out with like-minded criminals and criminal states.

So far it seems that MF acted on behalf of

at least 33 company shareholders, directors and other beneficiaries who were under sanctions by the U.S. Treasury department, the European Union and the United Nations”.

North Korea is being highlighted in two cases. The first is DCB Finance involving British banker Nigel Cowie and North Korean official Kim Chol Sam. The company is alleged to have helped finance North Korea’s weapons programmes. Nigel apparently moved to North Korea 1995 and lived there for a decade, which means he was there when the famine was at its worst and in 2003 when North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He denies any knowledge of any illegal dealings. Hmmm.


MF did end its relationship with DCB in 2010 after someone suggested they look at their own paperwork showing that the company was registered in Pyongyang. One employee acknowledge that this ‘should have been a red flag’. Though to be fair, when you’re dealing with tax-avoiding elites, corrupt officials, dictators and other nefarious characters and countries it can hard to spot an actual sanctioned company from the ones which should be sanctioned.

(Source: Washington Post)

The other case involves two Australian-based men who apparently set up two companies which announced mining deals with North Korea and registered on the Australian Stock Exchange. An ex-UN official on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts for North Korea sanctions spoke to the ABC in Australia to clarify that “the deals involved North Korean entities under sanctions” and that he was “absolutely stunned” by the lack of attention paid, presumably by the Australian authorities, to the public announcements of the companies mining deals.

But of course it’s not just North Korea accessing the services of MF. In South Korea, 195 individuals have been identified so far. This includes former President Roh Tae-woo’s son, Roh Jae-heon. He’s claiming that he never did anything with the companies. Hmmm.


What is the point of the Japan-South Korea ‘comfort women’ deal?

The early English twitter and media coverage of the announcement that Japan-South Korea had brokered a deal to resolve the issue of reparations for South Korean ‘comfort women’ was couched in mostly positive language with some journalists expressing the hope that, this time, the apology would be sufficient to end the issue once and for all. Yet, even a basic knowledge of the issue and a small amount of common sense should be enough to see that this deal is as bad, if not worse, than the previous failed apology attempts.

A deal only covering South Korean victims reeks of realpolitik. Given Japan and South Korea’s economic relationship and the strength of the comfort women movement in South Korea it is not surprising that this deal was wrangled with South Korea and not Indonesia, Taiwan, or the Philippines, etc.

But even putting that aside, here are three obvious reasons why this deal is fatally flawed:

  1. The women, their families or representatives weren’t at the negotiating table

The picture attached to most of the stories gave us the first clue that the deal was bogus. Two Asian men shaking hands standing in front of their respective national flags is not a picture that encapsulates the story of an historic acceptance of an apology to female victims of wartime sexual slavery.

(picture source)

As the picture does suggest, none of the women, families or representative organizations were included, consulted or involved in the discussions and negotiations for agreeing the deal. Nor were the women alerted or briefed about the deal prior to it being made public. This is even more evident in the fact that the deal fails to include key asks that the ‘comfort women’ have been calling for and is as equivocal as previous apologies that failed to gain the acceptance of the victims, their families or representatives.

  1. It’s a deal, not an apology

Rather than an unequivocal apology and reparations, this agreement is very much a political deal – South Korea removes the statue across from the embassy and Japan will pay out 1 billion yen of government funds and repeat the same carefully worded apology that avoids acknowledgement of legal responsibility. The deal is already coming under threat as South Korea seeks to take advantage of the vague wording in the deal to avoid moving the statue.

As for the money, it already looks like the proposed Fund is in trouble. A few years ago, two South Korean former ‘comfort women’ set up their own fund, the Butterfly Fund, which works to provide support for victims of wartime sexual violence in conflict areas around the world. This genesis of this fund was the position taken by these two women that the apology counts for more than the money. They said that, if the Japanese government ever paid reparations, they would use that money to support other victims of sexual violence in conflict. In the absence of any apology or financial compensation from the Japanese government, the women set up the fund from private donations. Hankyoreh reports that the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council) is refusing to engage with the proposed fund which will effectively make it impossible for the new fund to get established.

  1. Victims accept an apology, not governments.

States have the right to apply for reparations on behalf of survivors. However it seems inconceivable in this day and age that a government would apply for reparations without including, consulting and getting the explicit support of the women themselves to accept the agreement. This is especially true when the victims, their families and representative organization are so well organized with the ability to garner public support to back up their position. As we already saw, the Wednesday demonstration following the agreement attracted much larger numbers than usual and the group enjoys widespread public support in opposing the removal of the statue. The failure to involve the victims and gain their support to publicly accept the apology offered by the Japanese government is what will ultimately doom this agreement like all the ones before it.

The victims, their families and representative have made it very clear over the years what they believe would constitute an acceptable reparations package. Given that both the Japanese and South Korean government would have already known that this deal would be unacceptable to the women and that the public support in Korea would inevitably support the women, it is unclear what both sides hope to achieve by this endeavor.



Thirteenth Korea-U.S. West Coast Strategic Forum – boy, oh boy!

My twitter feed advised me that a summary report of the thirteenth Korea-US West Coast Strategic Forum was now available. I had not been aware of the event or waiting for the report but it sounded like it might be interesting. However, I did not read the report. I was just doing a quick scroll down to see how long the report was and how it was formatted when I saw a photo of the participants – all men! Not a single woman in the group. The report also includes a list of participants – I’m not going to claim to be an expert on Korean names but that list also seemed to show that all participants from both Korea and US were male. If that is truly the case, that all participants were men, then it is truly depressing. Perhaps there is an explanation, though its hard to guess one that would be acceptable.


Exam success

During my stay here I’ve also taken the opportunity to do some Korean classes. Its been tough to balance work, study and catching up with friends but it’s paid off because I passed my exams (just)! We had to get minimum 60% for each test – listening, speaking, writing and reading. All of them were fine except for listening which I barely scrapped in the requisite 60. But I made it and now I have advanced to a new level.


Ten observations from my time in South Korea

I am now one of those old-timers who remembers what things were like in Seoul back in the mid-90s when I made my first sojourn to Korea. Needless to say Seoul and its people have changed dramatically since then. Since I left Korea in 2003 I have only been back a couple of times and usually for just a week or a few days. This current visit which lasted from March to June is the longest period of time I’ve spent in Korea since 2003. As such, I have complied a list of 10 memorable things/observations from this trip (in no particular order):

1. Gyeongbuk Palace

Gyeongbuk palace was the first Korean palace I ever visited when I was a student on my first trip overseas in 1995. If you read some of the signs around Gyeongbuk you can notice that 1995 was the year that they began restoring a lot of the palace. That work has now long been completed. Gyeongbuk is now a picturesque mixture of palace buildings and park areas. And right next door is the impressive Folk Museum. Its always a pleasure to take a stroll around Gyeongbuk Palace and great value at just 3,000 per adult.

2. Grass and flowers

Cheongyecheon is perhaps the most well-known of the new greenery in Seoul but that is really a small part of the picture, and not the best part. The best part is the small squares of grass and flowers that are dotted around at intersections and outside buildings. I went for a jog along the Hangang and was very impressed about how green and pretty it has become. This is a wonderful change as it alters the whole atmosphere of the city and makes it feel much more pleasant. A few flowers can have a powerful effect.

3. Changing view points and changing ways

Mabye it’s the area in which I work, but many of the people I’ve run into while I’ve been here are quite well-travelled. In some cases, much better than me. There has been much less peer-pressured drinking and even a few occasions where I felt we could’ve had one more and still been home at a reasonable hour. During my visit there has been much greater scope for accepting or rejecting a drink or eating different foods and less obsequious bowing to higher ups. Like I said, maybe this change is just in the area I work, but its still a positive. And today I read that schools are getting ready to move to a complete 5 day week – things are certainly easing up in Korea.

4. Koreans got fat

The number of Korean fatties waddling around has been a big surprise during this trip. In the past there appeared to be few overweight Koreans. And it always felt like Koreans were a little smug about how slim they all were. Especially in the face of consistent international news stories about how fat many individuals in the Western world had become.  But I guess they aren’t so smug anymore. Turns out the will power of some Koreans to turn down fatty foods and that extra donut is on a par with individuals in the Western world who are also losing the battle to avoid temptation.

5. Great coffee and café Bene

Coffee and coffee shops in Korea just keeps getting better and better. First came Rosebud and now Café Bene. There are many places in Seoul to grab a great cup of coffee and loads of trendy cafes to enjoy a cuppa along with a delicious treat. Some places even have smoking areas to enjoy a coffee and a cigarette. Although I quit smoking I remember how much I enjoyed the combination of sitting in a café enjoying a coffee and cigarette.

6. Donuts (and now waffles)

I’m not convinced this donut obsession is a good thing. I find it a bit tacky. However, I have personally succumbed to the waffle temptation a couple of times. I think waffles have a bit more class. That’s obviously a subjective opinion. And I’m worried that waffles are going the same way as the donut and will soon be too omnipresent and will become tacky.

7. JimJjilbang

Getting a scrub remains one of the highlights of Korea. And the jimjjilbang’s are a great way to spend time. The idea of having a place to just hang out and relax, have a sauna, watch TV or whatever is a great idea.

8. Awful beer and expensive imports

Unlike the coffee, beer in this country is still crap. Imported beer is now much easier to find but are way, way, way too expensive. Craftworks taphouse does a good beer (all of them are good actually) but has terrible service. It’s a shame that after all these years this place appears to be the only one breaking into a much needed niche market.

9. Great food, cheap prices

Some things don’t change – you can still find good food at cheap prices served with great side dishes. The best part being that for a three month sojourn, I don’t need to worry about cooking or buying ingredients for cooking while I’m here. I can eat heathly delicious meals at prices that make grocery shopping unnecessary (especially considering the time and waste that cooking myself would involve).

10. Loads of non-Koreans

Since I’ve been away, I’ve often read in on-line papers that the population of non-Koreans has increased dramatically over the past years. And you can really notice it. Not just the obvious Western white people who stand out but also people of South Asian and Southeast Asian appearance. There are loads of non-Korean looking people not only at the usual places like downtown, Itaewon and Hongik but also in quieter areas there always seems to be a few non-Koreans wandering about.  Its not a multi-cultural society by any stretch but its certainly different to what it was.

I should also note that there were some things that I didn’t get time for during this trip. That includes travelling outside of Seoul and testing out the fast trains. I also didn’t get time to do any mountain climbing, a favourite pastime of mine when I was living here. I guess those things will have to wait until next time (whenever that may be).


Happy Birthday

Saturday was my birthday. Fortunately, despite the prediction, this was not also the end of the world. As it turned out, it was a good day, if not a little overcast and rainy here in South Korea’s capital. I took a trip to Dongdaemun to wander the shops – I got a new pair of jeans but was able to resist purchasing a pair of outrageously high heels on sale. I do love the outrageously high heels that are in fashion right now and already own a couple of very impractical pairs. I got some lotions and potions to stay the tragic effects of ageing – I am, afterall, a year older than I was before the weekend started. Then I got a scrub and spent a few hours relaxing at the sauna. This was followed by a coffee and delicious blueberry yoghurt waffle from my favourite Cafe Bene. And then beer with friends to conclude the day.

Sunday was spent napping.


South Korea holidays

There weather has been fairly nice for the past few days, which was lucky since we had the Buddha Birthday weekend. I popped up to the lantern parade last night and the street festival today, though both seemed little changed from the last time I attended a few years back. After wandering around the street festival I was able to enjoy my first iced coffee of the year, which is always a treat.

On the theme of nice weather, a few days ago I went for a walk around Samcheong Park. Some photos:

Samcheong Park

Samcheong Park

July 2018
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