Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Press Freedom: KBS Walkout and the Steady Decline of Press Freedom in Korea

So on Facebook tonight, from a handful of friends, the word was that KBS only aired 20 minutes of news during the 9pm broadcast, and then finished the hour off with marine wildlife.
Photo from a Facebook friend: turtles gettin' busy
The Korea Times reported that KBS reporters have walked off the job as a way of demanding the resignation of the CEO, who is accused of trying to influence programming to be more friendly to the president, and to appoint people friendly to the president to important positions in the organization. More here.

The Sewol Tragedy once again plays into this series of events: the public accounting for poor media coverage of the disaster and rescue started days ago, with apologies and self-reflection. One aspect of that has been, again, suppressing or massaging stories in order to make sure the President appears in a positive light.

Related, on May 1st, Reporters Without Borders released its 2014 World Press Freedom Index, which reports on the media environment of the previous year. Visit it here. Read The Press Freedom Index's methodology here. (PDF) South Korea ranked 57th in the world, seven places down from last year.

Korea's press freedom index rankings have been on a steady decline for a while. Here are the results since 2002: The first column is the year. The second column is South Korea's ranking in the world, and the third is Korea's score. A 0.00 score means a perfectly free press, and a 100 score means a total lack of press freedom. The scoring system was re-calibrated in 2013, when Reporters Without Borders started tracking incidents of censorship, and other countable items, themselves, instead of through the word of their contacts (hence the big jump from '12 to '13).

Year     Rank      Score
2002     39          10.50
2003     49          9.17
2004     48          11.13
2005     34          7.5
2006     31          7.75
2007     39          12.13
2008     47          9
2009     69          15.67 (low point due to the 2008 beef protests and government response)
2010     42          13.33
'11-12   44          12.67
2013     50          24.48
2014     57          25.66

The high point for Korea's press freedom was 2006, meaning that in 2005, South Korean media faced less censorship and manipulation than any other year. Since then, with a blip in 2010 (after a low point in 2009), the slide has been fairly steady, dropping between 2 and 8 places per year. These drops were not large enough in any one year to attract special mention in any of Reporters Without Borders' global summary reports, but dropping 26 places from 2006 to 2014... bothers me.

Freedom House, which also reports on press freedom worldwide, downgraded South Korea's rating from "Free" to "Partly Free" in 2011, again due to government intervention in media coverage -- presidential appointments to important media outlet positions, again. (More on the 2014 report here) (Freedom House's 2013 report on South Korea here. Nice and concise.)

In 2011, Frank LaRue, special rapporteur to the UN, also reported on freedom of expression in South Korea. His final UN repot, however, mentions South Korea in specific only a handful of times: this Amnesty International report puts those points all in one place.

The National Security Act - read Amnesty International's report  -- was written in 1948, and has a kind of a cold war "Blank Check" feel to it, with some vague wording about "anti-state activity" that can cover just about anything, in case the KCIA ever needs to trump up some charges. Read up.

Now, I get it, that as recently as the 1980s, South Korea had extremely limited press freedom, and robust and vigorous institutions don't just install themselves overnight-especially institutions with as many moving parts as a free press, and especially installed right on top of a non-free, censored and manipulated press. And being really healthy for a while doesn't mean a long-free press can't suddenly take a nosedive (even the USA, our self-proclaimed model democracy, has had some embarrassing drops). On the other hand, the fact that South Korea's not only backsliding, but steadily backsliding over an extended period, bugs me a lot, and I find it cynical and spurious that the fangless North Korean threat is still being invoked in order to block that website, delete that tweet, and hound that reporter. The antidote for speech you don't like is more speech, not censorship, and a robust democracy is confident enough in itself that it can bear the existence of a fringe movement without flipping the f-stop out.

I and a few friends have been working on a podcast lately called the Cafe Seoul Podcast, and our latest episode was inspired by Korea's slide in press freedom rankings, but the KBS walkout seems like a good time to share it.

Here is the podcast episode. In it, I interview John Power, who has worked as a reporter for a few of Korea's English language outlets. In case you aren't interested in the other stuff (awesome as it is), the interview starts at 33:40.

The darn thing won't embed, so here's the link.

The interview was edited a bit for length, so here is the raw cut of the full interview... because especially when the topic is free speech, I feel like listeners deserve to hear all the questions and answers.

And here's the link for this one.

And here it is on SoundCloud.


And here are the questions I asked John Power, and the times you can skip to, to find them:
2:00 - "Tell us about yourself"
2:30 - "Why is press freedom vital for a healthy democracy?"
3:18 - "Freedom house reports press freedom worldwide is on the decline, and other countries in Asia are dropping or ranked lowly on press freedom indexes; what's going on, and do you think the conditions in other countries affect what happens in Korea?"
6:00 - "Who are some of the players that are affecting press freedom in Korea for the better or for the worse?"
9:20 - [Bearing in mind cases like Na Gom-su-da and the blogger Minerva cases] "Can you explain for our readers what a chilling effect?"
10:30 - "In your opinion, what are steps that cold be taken to get Korea climbing instead of dropping in these press freedom indexes?"
14:50 - "In response to what some see as the corporatization of Korean (and world) media, some have pointed to social media and citizen journalism as the antidote… what are your thoughts on this?
17:35 - "Who do you trust more to handle Korea’s media responsibly: the chaebol, the government, “citizen journalists” or who?"
18:45 - Other Cafe Seoul cast members join.
20:40 - The National Security Act is still invoked because "There are North Korean spies out there" - is that a big enough threat to be concerned about, and censor, media?
24:00 - Differences between the way Korea is reported on in English, and in Korean.
26:15 - Have you ever had a story you worked on censored? Have you ever self-censored?

Friday, 9 May 2014

Elegy for the Sewol Tragedy: Waiting For A Miracle. Some personal thoughts

Read KimchiBytes.
Read The Secret Map's fictional "letter from Sewol"
Read Brother Anthony and Korean poet Ko-Un's creative effort: art and grief go together well.
Photos taken at the City Hall and Cheonggyecheon Plaza memorials for the Sewol Ferry victims.

The character 왜 means "Why"
Why why why why why?
Analysis aside, here are some personal thoughts:

If you're connected to Korea, you've probably spotted this image. On social media, everyone had this image or a yellow ribbon like it as their online profile photos.
The Korea Herald explains that the yellow ribbon campaign commemorated, and as time went by, mourned the victims of the April 16 Sewol Ferry disaster. The text says "하나의 작은 움직임이 큰기적을," translated by The Herald as "one small movement, big miracles." The ribbon pictured first turned up on April 21st, but there were no such miracles after the rescues made on the first day. We are still waiting.

As the mourning continues, I notice something I have always admired about Koreans:  in times of great joy or crisis, the entire nation galvanizes. South Korea is usually fractured and polarized: north/south, Gyeongsan/Jeolla, political and class and generational fault lines all regularly explode into public antipathy. Yet World Cup Fever still carries everyone away, the figure skating hero captures our eyes and dreams, and then she is no longer Yuna Kim, but "Our Yuna." It becomes "Our team." There is also "Korea's singer" "Korea's little sister" and Korea's representative X in diverse fields. When a Korean does well abroad they are suddenly everyone's brother, sister, uncle, aunt. The same spirit brings Korea together in times of grief and crisis. People pulled gold teeth out of their mouths, and gave up heirloom gold, to help out during the 1997 Financial crisis. Why? Because it's "Our" country, and "Our" crisis. Much of the language at the Sewol memorial in City Hall is familial, or collective.
At the City Hall Plaza memorial.
Those yellow ribbon images again.
This heart was made of yellow paper boats, hand-folded.
And all of Korea grieves now, because these are "Our" children, taken away through entirely preventable causes. "We" failed to protect them. "We" let scofflaws and crooks willfully put lives at risk over a profit margin, and it is already too late for "our" lost children.

One feeling I've picked up is that these are not isolated cases, either. "We" feel that it could have been any of us. Everybody went on school trips like this. One day my son will. Everybody has boarded a train or a boat not knowing whether it cleared its last inspection with room to spare, or just barely, or only because somebody was hurried, or called in a favor. On the streets, we have all passed the preschool with a plastic slide instead of a fire escape, tut-tutted helmet-less scooter drivers weaving through traffic. In my first year, a fire lit by some kid in my seventh floor hagwon was doused with water carried from the bathroom sink, because the legally required fire extinguishers were locked in the owner's office. In my second year, our seventh-story kindergarten had one day of classes on the second floor while the fire inspector came by, because the seventh floor had a permit for special activities but not regular classes. Our secondary fire escape was a pulley. Just this January, I saw a car tear through a crosswalk at passing lane speed, and had a middle-school girl crossed two steps faster, I would have seen her die. These are anecdata: not much on their own, but Korea's workplace injury and traffic fatality statistics confirm what the smell test suggests: there but for the grace of God go any of us.

This "Graduation class photo" really hit me.
News stories corroborate. Here, Popular Gusts lists some of the incidents that could been wake-up calls. Fake certificates at a nuclear plant. The Daegu subway fire. Sampoong Department Store. Seongsu Bridge. These names are repeated like a shaman's grief ritual. All the low or no-casualty incidents like this (KTX 2013) and this (KTX 2011) appear and disappear on page 6 of the paper. Remember the time Lotte Adventure in Jamsil was shut down? Barely a blip on the public memory radar. And the most recent collision between two subway trains, only a few weeks after this tragedy suggests that those in charge of safety standards are still dropping balls.

At times like this it feels to me like Korea is two different countries at the same time, one built right on top of the other. The first is a corrupt kleptocracy, a country of dirty fire traps, short cuts and sweat shops, held together by guts and profit, run by wealthy wheeler-dealers with well-placed friends, populated with beaten down factory workers, low-wage drones, headlong delivery drivers, and the discarded humans who didn't run fast enough, now collecting recycling material on the street. Buildings with poor foundations, sketchy wiring, bad welding and corners that aren't square, literally or figuratively. Get it done, do it fast, next contract. All of Korea looked this way from the 1950s to the late 80s. Let's call it Grimy Old Korea, and have a moment of silence for Jeon Tae-il, the martyr of Grimy Old Korea, and the patron saint of what came after.

Korean language doesn't always include pronouns.
Literally, it says: "Sorry. Won't forget you."
Spirit of the phrase: "We're sorry. We won't forget you."
People could lay white flowers on the display, and bow.

There is another Korea built over top of Grimy Old Korea. Construction started in the 1990s. This is a Korea where taking a year abroad happens. Where kids grew up with cellphones, and people visit coffee shops and have photo blogs. Its citizens grew up wondering where to find free wi-fi, unlike their grandparents, who grew up wondering if they would eat meat that week. In this Korea people buy organic. They buy new shoes instead of visiting the cobbler near the bus stop. They wrinkle noses at squatter toilets. Let's call the country they live in Shiny New Korea. It has public parks that are no smoking zones. Grimy Old Korea smokes there anyways, though.

At City Hall 
Money is part of it, of course. Living in Shiny New Korea is pay as you go, and Korea is as safe as you can afford it to be, up to a point. Not all rich are part of Shiny New Korea, though. If you've ever had gangsters evict a tenant, or settled a grievance with a lead pipe, you're part of Grimy Old Korea. And not everyone trying to inhabit Shiny New Korea is privileged: the distinction cuts across generation and education and geographical region as well as class. Many would-be Shiny New Citizens are simply concerned parents and grandparents, buying second-hand foreign imports less for the prestige and more for the assurance that German and Swedish inspection codes are less susceptible to greasy palms. They scour blogs and word-of-mouth networks to verify what's good, what's safe, which preschools meet fire codes and run background checks on their teachers, and which restaurants don't disinfect. Those hours spent looking things up are the tribute they pay to ward Grimy Old Korea off another day.

The parents and grandparents with blood, skin, and kin in the game hope public transportation and public buildings are managed and inspected by members of Shiny New Korea, doing their jobs to the letter, and not the other kind. But even if you spare no cost, track the user reviews and get the import with extra airbags, sometimes Grimy Old Korea runs a red light coming the other way, and there's nothing you can do. Grimy Old Korea cannot be shut out entirely, and it can snatch away your kid, your dream, or your health, just like that.

To be fair, Grimy Old Korea had a good run, and accomplished a lot: the vitality, the entrepreneurship, the energy and determination of those same generations that filled the country breakneck quick with fire traps, tombstone apartment blocks and smokestacks, also demanded and achieved, at great human cost, a democracy wherein the Shiny New Citizens are free to complain about the wi-fi. Korea's modern history is knotty, and resists simplifying narratives.

Memorial at Cheonggyecheon Plaza
Academics and technocrats would employ the language of uneven development: advancement always follows the money first, before extending to everyone else. And in a country that developed as quickly as South Korea, it's no surprise that the contrast is sharp. Parts of this country feel like somebody threw a white tablecloth over a table cluttered with takeout. Of course the crystalware is crooked: there's a side dish beneath it! But with countries, you can't just clear and wipe the table before setting out the nicer new dishes. And some of the old dishes are nice, in their fashion.

Shiny New Korea and Grimy Old Korea don't often see eye to eye. Grimy Old Korea sidesteps the accusations of recklessness and ruthlessness with the language of nation building. It takes a tragedy like this for Grimy Old Korea to hang its head, to stop pleading "It's what everybody was doing!" and agree that they all rushed too quick, overlooked too much, and favored filling their own coffers over designing a nation made for its people.

Inside a globe of yellow ribbons:
the white flowers used in Korean funerals
Maybe this tragedy, after so many ignored warnings, will finally be the violent turning of a new leaf. Maybe the shame on one side, and rage on the other, will finally stop settling for band-aid solutions and transmute into real change, real accountability, until Grimy Old Korea is a closed chapter, and public safety is no longer a luxury for the moneyed. That would be a different kind of miracle than we started off hoping for.

There was a promise implicitly made in Grimy Old Korea's heyday, that the nation under construction would be worth the work. That sacrifice and strain would mean future generations enjoy a better nation than the parents inherited. That was the deal. There is a yearning for Korea to be prosperous, but to round that out by also being compassionate, not just toward shareholders, but toward the strangers who live and die, grieve and starve, and still check nervously for Grimy Old Korea barreling toward them at every crosswalk.

I wish that the next generation of leaders, contractors and entrepreneurs would see their neighbors, and moreover their customers, tenants and passengers, as part of the great "We," not just during times of crisis and joy, but all the time. The delivery that we want right now is not the one that buzzed by on a sidewalk motorbike, with a metal takeout box that nearly clipped my son. We'd rather have those in power deliver on that promise made in the 60s and 70s, that one day we will be able to enjoy, in peace and safety, the fruit of the sacrifices and griefs we have been asked to bear for too too long. We've worked so hard and lost so much: why are we still so unhappy? Why do these things still happen?

The takeout delivery always arrives on time, but the delivery that really matters, has been delayed again and again. And with our yellow ribbons waving in the downtown, maybe that is the miracle we are still waiting for.

People could write a note on these papers. So I did.

Monday, 5 May 2014

A Few More Links On Culture

Here:
Read two examples of ways to talk about culture (in the broader sense)

From the New York Times - "The Case For Disobedience" which includes these lines, which I think are crucial to understanding the public response, and the most relevant cultural angle to the issue:
“The elder generation’s responsibility for the younger generation has always been a central Korean value,” Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul and the Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, told me. “It’s absolutely counter-cultural to have crew members not take responsibility, which explains the national revulsion.”
From Jason Lim, for The Korean Herald - "But Korean Culture Is To Blame" talks about the culture of unbridled capitalism and profit-seeking, the way too many Koreans, for too long, have been willing to sacrifice too many other concerns, for profit. If you stretch the meaning of culture one way -- to mean the behavior and values reflected in every day life, then it's a cultural argument. If you stretch culture the other way, to mean the framework of ideals reaching out of the past, you'd say "that's not culture: profit isn't a Confucian value!" Defining terms helps. The other most relevant way culture plays in:
But it’s not just the love of money. After all, who doesn’t like money? But it’s the almost Machiavellian pursuit of money, growth, and success that has reached its peculiar zenith in Korea and trampled any other considerations in its way, including safety. The Washington Post quotes Professor Lee Chang-won of Hansung University as he poses the question, “The thinking is, is it worth stalling progress to deal with these regulations if there’s only a 1-in-10 million chance of something going wrong?”
In my book, this is a legitimate cultural argument, because profit is one of the values and priorities by which Koreans make judgments and decisions for action. Held up to survey results like these - wherein 2010 a larger percentage of Koreans listed wealth as the most important determiner of success than any other country, and had a top 5 result in this one. Is that a slam dunk proof? No. But it's enough to warrant further investigation.

Sky Kauweola's Tumblr blog has a piece about Cultural Determinism and the "Fundamental Attribution Error" I name-checked but didn't really expand upon in my last post. I encourage you to read it.

That article also links to a discussion of the obedience issue, in the context of older studies on "destructive obedience" - obedience of authorities, even when it goes against one's better judgment: the famous Milgram experiments (where doctors told subjects to administer electric shocks to unseen victims, and the rate at which people delivered strong enough shocks to kill -- even while hearing screams of pain -- because the Doctor told them to, was shockingly high.

Bringing the Milgram experiments into the discussion of hierarchy and obedience to authority is an extremely useful addition to the conversation. Humans do seem wired to obey authorities and leaders, which is why (as protests online and offline gain steam) the point comes home, again and again how important it is for us to choose the right leaders.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Sewol Ferry and Problems with Citing Culture

In the last post (part 1 is here) I wrote a rundown of the (large large) number of articles that use the Sewol Ferry tragedy as a jumping-off point for discussions about Korean culture.

(A few newer articles I liked, and one overly masochistic one:
Jae-ha Kim's culture post
WSJ's Korea Real Time blog - Blame and Shame
A journalist, on the ethics of overcoverage and media treatment of the disaster. One of my favorite takes on the story so far.
Letter asking the president to step down goes viral.
A discussion of "parachute appointments" - where retired government ministry workers move into leadership positions in the private sector, such that personal relationships rather than institutions drive public/private relationships, and cronyism gets entrenched
When self-flagellation goes to far, you see this from the official government website.)


In this post, I'd like to talk specifically about why the culture angle is troublesome. A few things:

The Various Meanings Thing

It doesn't take much exploring to see that even when culture is under discussion, people have different ideas of what culture means, what aspect of a culture needs to change, and how to do that. This is the first problem with citing culture to explain phenomena: when somebody says "culture" it could mean any of the following:
  1. Arts and media, overall
  2. Arts and media of the elites. Or of the common folk, specifically.
  3. Arts and media of the elites, or the common folk, in an arbitrarily chosen and usually idealized time in the past
  4. Patterns of behavior in very specific contexts, among specific groups, sometimes even in specific locations (Korean test culture, gamer culture, rape culture, Portland hipster culture)
  5. General, broad patterns of behavior, communication, and so forth, in a society
  6. The framework of generally shared beliefs and values in a society, which contribute to the patterns of behavior in #5
  7. Anything that happens that someone likes/dislikes, wants to preserve/change, or is similar to/different from how things happen where (or when) the observer is from
  8. Anything someone who's "not from around here" notices more than once, the cause or purpose of which they can't easily ascertain 
  9. A set of prescriptions (usually made by elites or fuddy-duddies) that young, or uneducated, or cosmopolitan, or provincial, or vulgar people should obey, and if they don't, they will be to blame when the country goes to hell in a hand-basket
  10. All of the above in a big undifferentiated lump, often saddled with an explicit or implicit judgment
With so many meanings, conversation about culture would clearly work best if people paused to clarify what they mean by culture, and any participant considers that two people working on different definitions will talk past each other. All parties should also be alert to anyone who's moving the goalposts, accidentally or on purpose.

More to the point, if someone hasn't really thought about, or clarified what they mean when they say 'culture', it's much less likely that a line of thought starting on a muddy and ill-defined notion will end in a place that's clear and illuminating: Mythbusters literalism notwithstanding, you can't polish a turd.

TL/DR: The word culture can be used to refer to a lot of different things, so it's helpful to specify what you and others mean when you start tossing the word around

The Broad Brush vs. Getting Specific Thing 

Culture has a lot of definitions, but some of them can be quite all-encompassing. It's fun to paint with a broad brush, but glossing over details is risky: it's hard to know which details not to gloss. Culture is often part of an event, an issue, or the decisions people make, but it's most often several steps removed from the actual, immediate causes. It influences history more in a Rube Goldberg sort of way, than in a smoking gun sort of way.



The risk is that by focusing too much on culture, more immediate causes get ignored, which would be irresponsible.

And even when there is a pattern, there is a high burden of proof on anyone asserting that it is a cultural issue before anything else. You have to first identify, then show that all those other factors are less relevant than culture. Even if you can show that something happens only in Korea, or in a special way in Korea, you still have to demonstrate that it isn't any of the other features unique to the Korean situation, but culture. Unless you've defined culture so broadly that everything is culture, in which case the term is uselessly broad.

In the Sewol Ferry case, safety standard adherence (protocols, corner-cutting and greed) safety awareness (education, training of staff and officials), regulation (government institutions), implementation (transparency, corruption, rule of law), and enforcement (institutional efficiency, rule of law, cronyism, corruption) are all areas to look at before the nebulous "culture," and are all areas that every society struggles to deal with effectively and efficiently. Can culture be an exacerbating factor in any of these areas? Sure it can. But decisive? The burden of proof is on you to show how culture is the most important factor, in concrete and specific ways that are actionable through policies and interventions. If you can, you've accomplished something really useful.

TL/DR: Apply Occam's razor before positing culture as the decisive factor in something. Or add some qualifiers.

The Identity Thing

Because the word "culture" can mean all kinds of things, all the way up to "the entirety of how a society organizes perceives, represents and perpetuates itself," even somebody speaking an a narrower, limited sense of culture (for example, 'dating culture'), can be misunderstood to be speaking in the broadest sense possible, or making implicit judgments about the broad culture, by the way they talk about the specific one. This sometimes causes defensiveness, because people often take their culture as an important part of their identity. I have witnessed people defending things they admitted, upon cooling down, were mostly indefensible, simply because they felt that an outsider was attacking their culture in ignorance or spite.

Interestingly, people tend much less to get their backs up when one speaks more specifically. Talking about institutionalizing safety inspections or removing corruption from regulatory bodies provokes the rising of many fewer hackles than talking about a culture that does not value human life, to take the Sewol ferry case. If you cannot tell the difference between talking about a culture of corruption and talking about a corrupt culture, you will have a hard time avoiding defensive reactions.

TL/DR: People tend to associate their culture with their identity, so either get ready for defensiveness, or use more careful and specific language.


The Agency Thing, The Arrogance Thing, and The Monolith Thing

Spend a minute reading what fundamental attribution errors and ecological fallacies are.

Sometimes, inlaid in discussion of culture, is the idea that people have a hard time acting outside of their culture's patterns - that their culture defines the limits of their possible behavior. This is "cultural determinism." It often comes with the attitude that everybody within a culture shares some unchangeable fundamental traits (Essentialism). Or that "those people" are somehow fundamentally "different from us" (Orientalism). These attitudes frame a discussion as if cultures were more powerful than individuals' decision-making abilities -- that the kids on that ferry really WOULD obey the captain's orders even to the point of risking their own lives.

By skipping too quickly past other causes in which human choice is more prominent, or focusing too emphatically on culture, we're treating people as if they don't even control their own decisions, and letting some off the hook too easily. Can we offer all sound-minded human beings the dignity not to put culture above personal agency? (That's a rhetorical question. Yes we can. And we need to.) Culture doesn't take away our power to make decisions, nor our responsibility for them. Using culture to try and get a free pass, or let someone off the hook because they "couldn't help it" because of their culture is dehumanizing, and either condescending or disingenuous.

One more thing (slippery slope warning): elevating culture to the point that it completely, or significantly, determines a person and a society's entire range of possibilities and potentials echoes an ugly period in history. The attitude that some cultural features put a ceiling on a society's potential for attainment or development was used a long time ago to justify "advanced" countries colonizing "primitive" cultures. Including Korea. (cf: The White Man's Burden). Even today, the words "traditional" or "indigenous" are sometimes code words for "backwards" or "uncivilized." Watch for that.

Cultures are not undifferentiated monoliths and hive minds, nor are they fixed and unchanging, nor do they appear out of an ahistorical vaccuum, nor are they rigid determiners of their members' abilities choices or potentials. Cultures contain diverse elements, they change constantly, in response to specific events conditions and stimuli, and people constantly stretch the definition by not fitting the mold. Muddy, vague, context-removed generalizations about culture deny all of this.

TL/DR: Saying culture took away someone's ability to make a rational decision is degrading. Humans have brains, and make choices, and are accountable for them.

The Silencing Thing


All those complex forces that influence cultural change? All those debates and discussion about identity, history, priority and future that, all together, comprise a society's conversation with itself about what kind of society it is? Those conversations are full of voices. Voices from people inside the culture. Who experience it first hand and know it intimately. Who are the very best source of knowledge and insight into the nature of a society, and whose conversations provide concrete examples of how cultural backgrounds manifest in actual social behavior. And whose assent is needed if anyone wants to create any kind of cultural change. And ignoring all that contestation, all those contradicting voices, all those ideas and values and conflicts, in order to fit some image, silences them.

There is no need to speak on behalf of the members of a society, as they have their own voices, and the best commenters start with references to those voices. Denying a society's members the chance to speak for themselves is another way of dehumanizing a group. And it's been done too often, to all kinds of groups, and every time it happens, we are poorer for the lost opportunity to learn something new. And this is what it looks like to people who actually know the conditions on the ground. Some of the cultural discussions regarding the Sewol disaster have reflected, and been reflected by sources written by Koreans, for Koreans. Others have not. Guess which ones I take more seriously.

A discussion of culture that is not in tune with what people in a culture are saying themselves, is woefully incomplete, and could never persuade them to affect cultural change anyway.

TL/DR: Societies are full of self-aware people who make good points about what their culture/society is, and what it needs, and they deserve your attention.

The Complex Text Thing

Because culture is such a big, messy, slippery, contradictory thing, it is possible to find confirmation of just about anything one wants to find. Wanna prove Koreans are backwards and provincial? Chat up some folks in the countryside or an old, low-income neighborhood. Wanna prove they're hip and cosmopolitan? Head to Garosugil.

You can conclude Koreans are incredibly polite or rude, loud or quiet, shy or ribald, moderate or intemperate, generous or ruthless, all depending where you fix your gaze, in the same way that the same bible was used to support the Civil Rights Movement and to justify slavery. Koreans slavishly obey authorities? That chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, the way public schools are generally run, something about North Korea's Cult of Kim, and this spurious "death by obedience" explanation support the narrative. Koreans mistrust authorities and have a cherished history of defiance? Donghak peasant revolt, March 1st Movement, 1961, 1980, 1987, and 2008 corroborate that.

Somehow everybody seems to find what they're looking for. (Source)


Yes, there are prevailing patterns, which can be identified. A culture is not a pure ink blot with no meaning or form at all, but the whole system is so complex, dynamic, and contradictory that anybody who wants to go there needs to step carefully and offer more than anecdotes.

TL/DR: Cultures and societies are so complex you can prove anything by focusing your gaze in the right place. It doesn't mean you've made a compelling case.


Conclusion: Enough Lecturing Already, Roboseyo!

So is culture off the table entirely? No. Of course not. But it should be clear by now that bringing culture into a discussion is a minefield: there are more ways of doing it wrong than doing it right, and it should be done with tact, rigor, or both. Both. Minefields are most safely navigated when you know where the mines are hidden, obviously.

It should also be clear that the person with the most credibility is the one who is in tune with the voices on the ground. Is a foreign correspondent the only one talking culture of obedience? Someone who doesn't even live here? Do your Korean friends shake their heads vigorously when you posit culture of obedience as a contributing factor, or do they nod sadly? Does the article you just read reflect the discussions actually happening AMONG THE PEOPLE CONCERNED?? Is their take gaining domestic traction, getting translated and forwarded among Koreans? Because the word coming through translation is talking about crony culture, of corruption and corner-cutting culture, not hierarchy and obedience.

Can we talk about safety regulation, implementation and enforcement in Korea without bringing culture into it? We sure can!

We could start with Heinrich's Law - Heinrich studied industrial safety in the early 1900s (in America, which also had to take some time to figure things out, and still regularly muffs it), and found that for every accident causing major injury or death, there were 29 similar accidents causing a minor injury, and 300 no-injury accidents -- close calls and such.

quick google search reveals that Heinrich's law is still being debated and challenged today... but the big takeaway is this: accidents don't occur out of the blue. Before The Big One happens, there are warning signs - minor incidents - that attentive and proactive leaders/inspectors/regulators/staff members can identify. There are measures that can be taken so that the big one doesn't come to pass. Big accidents aren't one-offs, in most cases: they're convergences of lots of factors. Fatigue and bad visibility and a rushed itinerary and mechanical failure and late response and lack of training and failure to accurately assess the situation and a badly timed hangover, and and and. The Sewol disaster has been dissected at least enough by now that it's clear this is the case here as well.

These direct influences must be addressed effectively. No discussion of culture is needed. Now... why has corner-cutting been tolerated? Why is there so much cronyism between national associations and government ministries? Why have so many warnings gone ignored? We're getting meta now, which is fine after the most pressing issues have been addressed. And maybe maybe maybe culture plays into that, and let's have a conversation about it! I'm sure the locals have lots of good things to add, and are hoping their leaders will be decisive and clear-minded enough to create useful solutions, systems that are designed for early recognition of problems, that have regulatory teeth to punish corner-cutters, and not just stopgap and politically convenient band-aid solutions.

Wouldn't it be nice if all the public anger got channeled toward such solutions rather than cultural self-excoriations! Would that this new enthusiasm for due diligence and safety awareness got extended to all kinds of other sectors... I'm sure you can guess which. One of them involves better use of traffic cameras.

In Part 3, I'll talk about Culturalism, as per Ask A Korean, and Culturalism, as per what it actually is.