Seoul notes

It is remarkable how well everything works here, even relative to expectations.  The economic ascendancy of South Korea has been more rapid than that of Japan, and for a larger group of people than Hong Kong or Singapore.  The initial level of education was much lower than in Japan.  The Korean social miracle is no less impressive than the Korean economic miracle.

By the way, can you explain the South and North in a single unified theory of culture and regimes?

French-Korean bakeries are extremely common here.

The Samsung Museum is of higher quality than the National Museum, including for patrimony pieces not just Warhol and Koons.

My hotel toilet is complicated and I am afraid to press the one button which simply says “Enema.”

I saw the two main Korean presidential candidates “debate,” both of them using communitarian redistributionist rhetoric with a rather flat delivery, preceded by and followed by a bow.  Toward the end one of them endorsed the work of Malcolm Gladwell, in front of Gladwell.

I am pleased to have spent one minute inside North Korea, with Alex, guarded by five South Korean martial arts experts and one U.S. soldier.

The question I hear most often is what I think of Gangnam style and the video.  The second is whether I am a Christian.

There are so many coffee shops here.  But why?

South Koreans have now dominated the game of Go for about fifteen years.


"Toward the end one of them endorsed the work of Malcolm Gladwell, in front of Gladwell."

Sounds like it's time to short Korean stocks.

Koreans meet outside and not at their homes so they need a place to meet, coffee shops being an obvious option given that the cost is limited and you can stay for as long as you wish. Plus you can upload all those pictures of French bakeries etc. to your social network.

"can you explain the South and North in a single unified theory of culture and regimes?"

Communism messes people up.

'can you explain the South and North in a single unified theory of culture and regimes'

Colonialism? (Or if one prefers, imperialism - the distinction gets a bit murky when talking about post WWII power structures.) Japanese (straightforward colonialism), then followed by the Russian/Chinese axis in the North, and the American one in the South. It really isn't that difficult when one thinks in terms of power blocs, and a heavily armed border, with a family dynasty on one side of it. Or is familiar with how recent democracy really is in South Korea, while noting the existence of this document -

I think you spelt Starcraft wrong. It had more letters than G and O.

It's the horsey dance.

Consider your regime/culture theories in light of the second-most common question asked of you.

Other Tigers aren't christian.

Indeed. Some are Confucian, others Muslim.

I have seen all kinds of factors posited to explain national growth, on this blog and others, but never "widespread religious conversion". Perhaps a common blind spot shared by academics?

The common factor there is domination by Western states, at least for a while, which then went on the spawn religious conversion in South Korea. In Hong Kong it never took off; in Singapore the ruling Westernized local Chinese elites were only partially Christian; a slim majority of atheists amongst the English-educated Chinese, and this remains so to this day.

I don't think domination by a Western state was the cause of Korean christianisation. I'm not sure, but I think that Christianity may have received a significant boost in prestige through the involvement of Christian churches in the independence movement.

Michael Zielenziger makes the case in Shutting out the Sun, that the success of Christianity in Korea arose from a number of lucky coincidences. Christianity was easier to syncretize with indigenous Korean beliefs, missionaries were the major force for literacy among the Korean peasantry and largely responsible for the current use of Hangul writing over Hanja (Chinese characters), also, Horace Newton Allen, an American missionary in the late 19th century was a medical adviser to the Korean royal family after saving saving the life of one of the members of the royal house following an assassination attempt and introducing western medicine to the country. The right people happened to be in the right place at the right time to exert a lot of influence on Korean society at a pivotal point in history.

Eh? There's been strong religious conversion in Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific too. Are Baha'is and Seventh-Day Adventists simply praying to the wrong god?

Interesting how many of these exact same observations could also be made about Japan. Specifically your points about French bakeries, high tech toilets and coffee shops. Taiwan also is similar in many ways. Makes me wonder if it these are country specific cultures or something more related to the region as a whole.

Korea and Taiwan were both Japanese colonies.

We use to think that one of the factors behind the two countries rapid development was that both countries education systems were patterned on the Japanese model.

For sure. But try to tell the average Korean on the street about that Japanese influence and you probably won't get a kind response back. I always thought it interesting how there was never much anti-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan in spite of the fact that it was colonized just liked Korea was.

The communists were more successfully anti-Japanese than the nationalists; part of the Taiwanese purges was eliminating this advantage by suppressing anti-Japanese fervor. And Taiwan needed Japanese investment later, too, which gave a material incentive. See Singapore for similar. Korea was colonized by Japan too early for communist resistance to take off.

What do mean the communist were more successfully anti-Japanese than the Nationalists? I must have missed the major battles that the the communists fought against Japaneses. Not trying to take anything away from the Communists guerrilla battle, but most of the real fighting against the Japaneses was done by the nationalists (defining real fighting as the body count on both sides).

True. The communists were more successful at agitating, and taking credit for, anti-Japanese sentiment, though, because they were the guerrillas fighting in territories the nationalists had lost (and thus the areas most desperate for salvation from the Japanese).

"I always thought it interesting how there was never much anti-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan in spite of the fact that it was colonized just liked Korea was."

A large part of that is because the Taiwanese view the Chinese, including the Nationalists from the mainland, as outside occupiers as much as the Japanese. So, the period of Japanese rule in the first half of the 20th century is not really considered an anomaly in their history. The Nationalist occupation being more recent than the Japanese occupation, it's not too surprising that the Taiwanese don't resent the Japanese, perhaps an element of the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend principle in there. They have assimilated elements of both Japanese and Chinese culture into their own, not too different from how immigrants' home cultures get assimilated into American culture over time, although obviously the occupier-domestic relationship is much different from the immigrant-domestic relationship. There are many Taiwanese, for example, that were born during the Japanese colonial era that still use their Japanese names with their friends and family. The Taiwanese identity effectively includes both Japanese roots and Chinese roots. It would be hard to resent yourself.

Also, their top national university (Taiwan National) was founded by the Japanese.

The Koreans dominated the world GO scene from the mid-1990s until around 2003 or 2004. Since then, the Chinese have matched their power at the top level - both countries take turns winning international tournaments.

I think it's more recent than 2003-2004, but the point is right. It's currently possible to say that China has now surpassed Korea by a bit on the international stage (but the two countries are close, and both are well ahead of Japan and Taiwan). This only covers international title victories, and therefore suffers from the law of small numbers, but here is one view:

As a finite game of perfect information, Go is guaranteed to at least have a non-losing strategy.

The number of possible strategies is enormous, but symmetry reduces this somewhat and subgame strategies may also be isomorphic.

Game play relies greatly on the opening moves and opponents often study one another. Consequently, players who develop a dominant strategy will be teaching many others both in offense and defense. Therefore one should expect dominant players to be geographically or socially connected. As non-optimal strategies are exploited and then eliminated, new strategies will arise, not necessarily superior, but those most familiar with the new strategies have a temporary advantage.

The best way to think about it is an iterative search using second derivative algorithms or heuristics. Many local optima will be discovered but then be revealed as inferior to nonoptimal strategies and hence they will be abandoned.

The global optimum is probably so complex it may never be found by a human player and could not be implemented when found by a computer. The exception is if the winning strategy can be reduced to a simple algorithm. But then the game will become as irrelevant as tic tac toe - useful only for teaching basic game theory to children.

[i] The global optimum is probably so complex it may never be found by a human player and could not be implemented when found by a computer. The exception is if the winning strategy can be reduced to a simple algorithm. But then the game will become as irrelevant as tic tac toe – useful only for teaching basic game theory to children. [/i] That's what they said about chess, and were wrong. The Go tree is like the chess tree but with more branches, that's all. It can be solved.

hahahahaha, "never", that funny world that people use to describe technological advances

I'd be interested to know whether most of the people asking if you're Christian are themselves Christians. I was in Seoul for a little less than a week, but met many people and was never once asked about my religion. The country seemed pretty secular to me, so I wonder if Christians may have been asking because they think that as an American you're likely to be Christian and they would have some affinity with you. Also, most of my Korean friends and colleagues here in the states are Christian, at least nominally.

Could you try pushing the enema button from a safe distance and posting a video here? I am curious to know what it does but I know better than to start googling Korean enema toilet.

I'd wager it functions like a bidet.

That's easy to say from where you're sitting.

Admittedly, I don't know much so I'm speculating: I think South Korea's success, especially with how socially wide-spread it is, may come from it's vertical integration.

Apple has it's brain trust in Cupertino who do well, and China has it's manufacturing, but if you look at South Korean companies, they contain both within the same country. I think that may be why you see more widespread effects across society.

But America is still richer than South Korea, while China is still poorer. Does this suggest that people shouldn't conflate rates and levels when talking about growth and prosperity?

Coffee shops are also a status symbol for upwardly mobile koreans. In fact, find a translation to the lyrics of Gangnam Style. There's a line in it that goes something like "I want a girl that loves to drink coffee. I can down a cup of hot coffee in one gulp." A cup of coffee cost around 5 dollars the last time I was there, (2003), which was quite a downer for someone who has woken up to the legionnaire's breakfast for the last 15 years...

That's probably a relatively minor factor. Coffee shops are not great status symbols due to the limited communicability. How long can you carry a cup around?

A big part of Korean culture is sit-down socialization. Lone eaters and coffee drinkers are fairly rare, except for hole in the wall locations patronized by workers. I haven't visited in a few years, but the coffee used to be swill. Then, American Starbucks quality coffee proliferated. Korean coffee snobbery is in its infancy, if it exists at all.

I guess culture matters if you think about the economic sucess of South Korea. Compare the sucessful East
Asians states to Latin America.

I can't wait to visit .

> "both of them using communitarian redistributionist rhetoric"

That is interesting, as I just assumed all non Communist east Asian nations to have low taxes. Upon Google review, it seems that South Korea is a high tax nation, almost as highly taxed as California / NY / Mass! Places it firmly amongst the most highly taxed European nations.

“can you explain the South and North in a single unified theory of culture and regimes?”

Koreans have a cultural tendency towards fanaticism. After Confucianism became the dominant ideology under the Chosun dynasty, Koreans rapidly became more Confucian than the Chinese (although the shift started under Goryeo). Today, Korean Christians are some of the most fanatic Christians you will ever meet. In North Korea, they fanatically devoted themselves to Communism 110%, with predictable results. In the South, they have fanatically devoted themselves to status-competition and making money. In addition to South Korea's economic success, this also helps explain, for example, their world-leading rates of plastic surgery.

Makes sense.

Koreans are also the world's best rioters, with superbly organized riots. In other countries, the Riot Police see their job as stopping riots, but in Korea the huge conscript Riot Police see their job as doing battle with the rioters. As far as I can tell, a good time is had by all.

I inadvertently got to see a South Korean riot from a very close (but safe) distant. It was absolutely the most fun spectating I've had as a tourist anywhere.

i was brought to one of these riots by my ex-army general grandfather. Indeed a good time is had by all. He punched a north Korean sympathizer in the back of the head and caused a scuffle. All the while the riot cops immaculately orchestrated their positions around us. After things deescalated we went to get some delicious cold noodles afterwards.

Re: Michael:

"Admittedly, I don’t know much so I’m speculating: I think South Korea’s success, especially with how socially wide-spread it is,"

How widespread is it really? My impression whenever I visit Seoul is actually that the wealth disparities are almost like New York or Latin America -- you have people living in huge, plush apartments or homes with large grounds, maids, and chauffeurs, and not far away you have people living in hovels with corrugated metal panels for roofing. It's only more marked once you get out of Seoul into the countryside. The condition of the poor is obviously loads better than it was 30 years ago, but I've never had the impression that South Korea's success was particularly "socially wide-spread." It's heavily concentrated on the chaebol, who benefited from preferential treatment during the dictatorship, and the professional classes who serve them.

Unfortunately it's still not easy for a self-made entrepreneur to grow a company from small to midsized (let alone large). Reasons for this are corruption (his competitors have arrangements with key contact-people at customers possibly involving expensive gifts or cash envelopes) which goes hand-in-hand with an extreme importance of "networking" (again, buyers are loathe to switch even if another vendor has lower prices/better products), little knowledge of effective managerial and financial accounting, little knowledge of marketing, little knowledge of foreign languages/export opportunities, desire to hide past tax evasion and continue tax evasion in the future,

IMO this is why many domestically-focused businesses are so weak (in terms of profit margins or return on time spent) and the TFP (productivity) of the Korean services industry is much, much lower than that of the export industry. In fact the chaebols (called 대기업/large companies in Korean) are actually relatively better in terms of "professionalization" of services and thus get picked on too much by politicians.

This company has opened a number of stores here in southern California, mainly in Orange County:

Not even a hypothesis, but a guess... on the coffee shop thing. Could it be related to the (what I hear is supposedly a) fact that South Koreans work longer hours than anyone else on the planet? I worked in Seoul for a few months a few years back and noted not only the vast proliferation of coffee shops (BTW can someone explain the vast proliferation of (ladies) nail shops in the USA?) but of coffee (hot and cold) vending machines. My colleagues (and eventually myself) were always swigging down coffee just to keep going. Note, too, that Japan, I believe (which until not too long ago had similar hours for its own salarimen), claims to have invented caffeine chewing gum (and WOW does that work!). Anyway, just a guess, floating free of the prison of actual facts!

Only a guy would ask "BTW can someone explain the vast proliferation of (ladies) nail shops in the USA?". We ladies are just grateful!

Mani/pedis are a cheap luxury, require weekly/bi-weekly maintenance, and are actually time intensive, i.e. the easier it is to get to a salon the better. I will travel hours to get to my hairdresser, but won't venture far at all for a nail salon. There's probably more, but that should start you off nicely to build your theory.

Not to mention, pedicures mean a walk home in flipflops, which is a pretty daunting prospect in the middle of winter in NY, so the closer the better.

They also require little in the way of investment or human capital to get started.

I didn't realize that was my question was gender-bounded, such that no woman would ever ask it. Since the implication is that no male would ask about a female-oriented portion of the economy, and conversely that no female would ask about a male-dominated portion of the economy, doesn't that kind of work against the spirit of open and free inquiry which one would think should guide this particular blog and its readership? I'll be sure in future to reply to a female who asks anything about barbershops, that "only a gal" would ask such a question! (grin) Besides, how are us dumb guys ever to learn about these things if we don't ask? (grin again)

According to the Atlantic article about Gangnam Style., going to a coffee shop is now considered an extremely chic thing to do, because it is a form of conspicuous consumption. My Korean friend has also told me that coffee, as a "foreign" product, seems particularly glamorous to Koreans.

That's very different from my experience. I worked in Korea for several months in 2004. Even then, no one considered coffee to be exotic. It used to be a heavily diluted excuse to chat.

From the Atlantic article:
Psy boasts that he's a real man who drinks a whole cup of coffee in one gulp, for example, insisting he wants a women who drinks coffee. "I think some of you may be wondering why he's making such a big deal out of coffee, but it's not your ordinary coffee," U.S.-based Korean blogger Jea Kim wrote at her site, My Dear Korea "In Korea, there's a joke poking fun at women who eat 2,000-won (about $2) ramen for lunch and then spend 6,000 won on Starbucks coffee." They're called Doenjangnyeo, or "soybean paste women" for their propensity to crimp on essentials so they can over-spend on conspicuous luxuries, of which coffee is, believe it or not, one of the most common.

Other articles: ***Interesting take on K-pop's potential as soft diplomacy: and ***Not really about Psy, but Korea's brand of irrational exuberance:

The Koreans are following the American coffee shop trend started 15 years ago. East Asians are very status concious. Chirstianity gained a foothold in Korea because Europeans had status and Koreans desperately wanted to climb the status ladder. Their adherence to Christianity is more for status and social networking than it is for the actual beliefs.

It was easy for Korea to have it's "economic miracle" when other countries paved the way. Korea was not forging a new path, it was already paved long before and with great hardship by Europeans. Economist Alexander Gerschenkron's theory of backwardness and economic development explains the Korean "economic miracle."

That's the convergence theorem of economics and it's a variant of the Great Stagnation. You'll be proved wrong, mark my words! There's a Korean Einstein being born today...

The world is still waiting for a Japanese Einstein.

HMM, I know Koreans would disagree. Koreans want us to believe there was a sort of immaculate conception of belief that happened out of nowhere and indepedent of Europeans. That wasn't the case. Koreans adopted Christianity because Europeans had high status in the world and were Christian and they wanted to be like Europeans.

Having worked in Korea almost a decade ago, I couldn't disagree more about your opinion regarding Christianity in Korea. Christianity has a foothold in the national psyche that extends far beyond simplistic "status" theories.

Have you actually met a Korean national and shared your views regarding European status? It seems like you are skipping a few steps in your theory.

This makes it all too clear:

"By the way, can you explain the South and North in a single unified theory of culture and regimes?"

Koreans are naturally zealots. In the North their zealots for communism. In the South their zealots for their employer mega-conglomerates (and evangelical Christianity).

agree. their fondness and familiarity of zealots also explains their dominance of Starcraft

If the National Museum is anything similar to what it was at its previous site until 2005, then it is a sad demonstration of the country's inability to deal with its past---in particular to get over the Japanese occupation and to normalize relationships with present-day Japan. The presented version of history was pure propaganda.

Watch out for the archers. They are good.

"My hotel toilet is complicated and I am afraid to press the one button which simply says “Enema.”

No shit?

(Sorry, I couldn't resist).

Chirstianity gaine a foothold in Korea because Europeans had status and Koreans desperately wanted to climb the status ladder.

Comments for this post are closed