Tag Archive | "Culture"

A Conversation with Pachinko Author Min Jin Lee

KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Min Jin Lee, author of the critically acclaimed book Pachinko, a novel centered around the struggles of a Korean family living in Japan.

The following is a partial transcript of that conversation, which has been edited for space. The rest of the episode can be found here.

Jenna Gibson: To start from the beginning, what motivated you to write Pachinko, a novel that mainly follows a Korean family in Japan? How did you become inspired to tell the stories of Koreans living in Japan?

Min Jin Lee: Well, I was 19 years old and I was in college and I went to a lecture given by an American missionary who worked with the Koreans in Japan and I learned about the history of the Koreans in Japan at that moment in time. I didn’t know anything about it, really. I had a vague idea about the occupation, but I didn’t know what it was like for the people there.

And then I heard a story that was quite disturbing to me, where he talked about a 13-year-old boy in his parish who jumped off a building and killed himself because he was just terribly bullied. And in the yearbook which his parents had found, his Japanese classmates had written, “go back to where you belong,” “I hate you,” and they wrote these words “die, die, die.” And this little boy was, of course, ethnically Korean but he was born in Japan and his parents were born in Japan. And it was very hard for me to understand that this could exist.

I think what really motivated me really was that moment in time when I was at the university and I heard that story, because I couldn’t understand how children could be so hateful. I mean, I know children, children can be mean, but I couldn’t imagine a kind of rejection based on ethnicity because I had been an American immigrant and I had not been treated that way when I was growing up in Queens.

I didn’t end up writing about bullying, that’s not what the book is about at all, but something about that moment in time, it just filled me with this kind of indignation. And when I was in college I think I felt like the whole world was so unfair anyway, and then later on when I got older I started really thinking about – what does that mean and how does that affect all of us? You know, I didn’t experience the war myself, I didn’t experience the occupation myself, so why should it affect me? But something about this idea of trauma that had affected my parents, and somehow I believe very strongly that next generations carry a kind of trauma unconsciously just from sheer exposure. So I wanted to explore that, I had a lot of questions.

Jenna Gibson: I wanted to ask you about the fact that, while you talk about all these various characters and their struggles, you centered a lot of the story around Sunja and her experiences as a young woman, as a mother, as the pillar for her family. Can you tell our listeners a bit more about Sunja as a character, and how you wove in some of these themes that a lot of female readers, myself included, can really identify with?

Min Jin Lee: I think that what’s really troubling to me is that Sunja is a character in a moment in time who is illiterate, who is poor, who has no connections, who has no legal protections from the society in which she lives. And you would think that a person like that doesn’t exist anymore, but the truth is that most women around the world actually have Sunja’s experience today. And because women of color and because women around the world still live in a patriarchal structure, women have to figure out how they will adapt and resist, and take care of themselves as well as their families if they have families.

And I was so surprised at the resonance that this book is having around the world because I was consciously thinking of it as a feminist, as a global feminist, at the same time I was also thinking about it in terms of narration, I was like “what do you do when all these things are happening, but you don’t have any input on the decisions that you make in your life except what you can do on a very very small scale?”

Sunja’s acts of resistance, Sunja’s acts of adaptation are not theoretical and they’re certainly not explicit – she wouldn’t say “oh, I’m a feminist.” I think her attitude is “what fire do I have to put out today.” And I really wanted to focus on that in a very pragmatic sense, but I also wanted to write a novel that was interesting and a joy to read. I wanted the person who was reading it, whether she’s a feminist or not, to feel like “oh, this is what my grandmother went through in America, or what my mother goes through right now,” because even today, there are so many people in this country who are illiterate, who have so few protections, and yet they still have to put out the fires that present themselves.

Jenna Gibson: So, you’re talking about some of the social issues that underpin a lot of what’s going on in Pachinko, and here on Korean Kontext, I like to talk about different topics including some of these important social issues, culture, etc. But of course being in DC many times we end up talking about politics, so I have to ask you about one of the things in your book that stood out to me – the theme of Korea’s occupation, the war, and the division of the peninsula. How and why did you weave these broader political and historical themes into the story of this family?

Min Jin Lee: I think that I made a conscious decision to I was to take it all on, and that was completely insane because it ended up taking up most of my life. I’m 49 years old and this book took up a good part of my life because I needed to understand that not just historically, anthropologically, sociologically, economically, as well as religion and philosophy and sociology, because I actually read all those things about the Korean Japanese…And this is like a huge task that you set up for yourself because every Korean in the world is affected by the division of the peninsula.

It affects you because your compatriots live in a bisected geographical nation, and that bisection was not because of democracy. That line was drawn by two young American men who had never been to Korea. So many people are affected by these choices that had nothing to do with Koreans, and it’s fascinating. And I wanted people to make the discussion more relevant and for it to keep going on because…if you really want to feel powerful about your life you have to understand how your life came to be, and how do we prevent this from going on in the future.

Jenna Gibson: Pachinko has been getting a lot of praise, appearing on multiple lists as one of the best books of the year. How do you feel knowing that so many people loved your work? Do you have any particular stories or moments that stood out to you as more and more people have been responding to the book?

Min Jin Lee: I’m totally in shock. I’m totally in shock and I’m so grateful. It hit the top ten for USA Today, The New York Times. It hit the reviews. It hit the lists of the Financial Times and probably 30 other publications, and it’s a shock because when I wrote this book and because I worked on it for such a long time I felt like nobody cares…After I wrote it, I figured who cares about 600,000 people in the 21st century in the world. This is a micro-ethnicity, micro-community, why should I do this. And then I remember handing it to my agent and I just figured okay well she can’t sell it then I’m just gonna, you know, move along and work on the next thing or try to sell shoes or whatever. And I’m not being comical right there because I quit being a lawyer and I stopped keeping up with my CLE requirements. It wasn’t like I could just go back and pick up and be an attorney again.

So in terms of surprise stories, all these lists are surprises. And also I had Ambassador Caroline Kennedy write to me unsolicited because she had read the book. I was really surprised. The first minister of Scotland read the book and she tweeted about it. You know Roxanne Gay picked it for her favorite book in the Washington Post. John Boyne, who’s a really important writer in Ireland, it’s his favorite book. You’re thinking why do they care, and you realize oh they enjoy the reading and they enjoy the learning. And I think for me that’s always been so important is that you can’t just be like a page turner

I’m in shock so it’s great, but at the same time you kinda can’t take it all that seriously, because, you know, you’ll just become a jerk. So the thing is – be grateful, and kinda just go to the next thing and then just be grateful.


Photo from Pedro Szekely’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Ten Useful Korean Words for Winter

By Sang Kim and Jenna Gibson

With a cold snap freezing South Korea this week, we collected a list of 10 useful winter-related Korean words that could help you get through the season. Check out the list and please leave any useful words that we didn’t include in the comments below!







롱패딩 – long-pae-ding

“long padding”

Using the English words “long” + “padding,” this is a type of puffy jacket that reaches below the knees. This “long padding” trend has swept Korea, made popular in part by famous ice skater Kim Yuna wearing a special PyeongChang Olympic-themed coat.







감기 조심하다 – kam-gi jo-shim-ha-da

Be careful of colds

This is a phrase that a mom or concerned friend would say as you bundle up and prepare to head out into the frigid weather. It can be a nice way to show you care about another person’s health.







영하 기온 – young-ha ki-on

Below zero temperature

Keep an eye out for this phrase on weather reports – it means that the temperature is going to be dropping below freezing (0 degrees Celsius or 32 Fahrenheit).







빙판길 – bing-pan-gil

Icy road

Ice is often the most dangerous part of winter, particularly when roads freeze over with black ice that is difficult to see while driving. Listen for this word on news reports to be prepared for an icy day ahead.







내복 – nae-bok

Long johns/long underwear

Literally translated to “under clothes,” it’s common to wear some type of long underwear to keep warm in the winter, particularly if you’re going to be spending more than a short time outdoors.







아늑하다 – ah-neuk-ha-da


This is an adjective similar to the English word cozy; it’s used to describe a house, room, or some closed space that’s warm and inviting.







꽁꽁얼다 – ggong-ggong-eol-da

Frozen solid

Used to describe something that is completely frozen, such as a lake or river. This is used literally when something has turned to ice, not as a way to describe how cold you feel on a chilly day.







삼한사온 – sam-han-sa-on

Three cold, four warm

Dating back to ancient Korea, this word describes the usual winter weather pattern in Korea, where there will be three cold days followed by four days that are slightly warmer. It’s unclear if that pattern still holds true today, especially with global warming, but Koreans still use this phrase when they see a cold-warm pattern of temperatures in the winter.







겨울 길거리 간식 – kyeo-ul kil-geo-ri kan-shik

Winter street foods

Korea is famous for delicious street food, and there is no better way to warm up on a cold day than with a warm snack. Some popular winter street food/snacks include: 호떡(ho-dduk) – Korean pancake with sweet fillings, 호빵(ho-bbang) – steamed buns, 군고구마(gun-go-gu-ma) – roasted sweet potato, and 군밤 (gun-bam) – roasted chestnuts.







한파 – han-pa

Cold snap

A word used to describe sudden drop of the temperature in the winter, 한파 is commonly used on weather forecasts or on the news to warn of frigid temperatures.


If you liked this list, check out the other posts in our series of useful Korean words: 10 Useful Korean Slang Terms, Ten Korean Words that Don’t Exist in English, and Ten Korean Dating Terms.


Sang Kim is the Director of Public Affairs & Intern Coordinator. Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image from Young Sok Yun 윤영석’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Hallyu Works Differently in the United States

By Hwan Kang

“Hallyu (한류)” or The Korean Wave, found success in foreign markets, especially in the Asian region, because of its unique Korean characteristics. Viewers in China, Vietnam or Malaysia recognized and identified with some of the storylines that played out in Korean TV shows, and fell for k-pop heartthrobs. But while Hallyu may have worked smoothly in markets that are geographically near South Korea, including North Korea where its people risk their lives to get their hands on southern contents, for many years it had not received as much enthusiasm in the U.S. market.

However, Korean companies are now successfully penetrating the American market by taking a different approach. Instead of solely working within Korean boundaries or emphasizing the Korean culture upfront, they are taking a step back and trying to produce something that looks familiar to the western consumers based on originally Korean platforms or ideas. Such a strategy seems to be yielding good results in different parts of the entertainment industry, since Korean producers are quickly grabbing attention as rising competitors in the U.S. gaming, TV and comic markets.

One of the notable developments in this endeavor is Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, which is garnering massive popularity in online gaming market. At first glance, it is hard to figure out if the game has any affiliation with Korean companies. After all, its unique “battle royale” style gameplay was initially developed by someone who is not Korean, Brendan Greene (a.k.a. PLAYERUNKNOWN). Bluehole, a Korean game company which has experience in making high quality online multiplayer games, then teamed up with him to develop the idea into a proper online game. With the help of experienced Korean game producers and technology, Battlegrounds has successfully debuted as an early access product on Steam, a major gaming platform. The game has several impressive achievements, the most noteworthy being its record of over two million concurrent players, and setting the stage as a leader in what some people predict is a new genre of online multiplayer game. Moreover, the player base is mostly constituted of players from outside Korea (6.79 percent), with 11.50 percent of total players presuming to be from U.S., which has the 2nd most players after China.

Another example is the new TV show, “The Good Doctor.” The show was originally a Korean medical drama about a genius pediatric surgeon with autism that aired back in 2013. Actors Joo Won and Moon Chae-won played the leading roles, and the show received positive reviews domestically. It touched on the complicated matters of having a mentally disabled person as a co-worker and a doctor in Korea’s not so handicap-friendly work environment. David Shore, the creator of House M.D., picked up the idea and developed it as an episodic TV series. The premise remains pretty much the same, except for some minor tweaks to fit the show more naturally into the American context. The show is the biggest new show of the year with 18.2 million viewers for a recent episode in an era when many shows have less than 10 million viewers. That is more than the popular sitcom “Big Bang Theory,” which had just 17.9 million viewers the same evening. The writer of the original show, Park Jae-bom, commented that the important part of his show is how it tells a story that is relatable to general people rather than trying to focus on Korean aspects. This comment underscores how Koreans sometimes became too obsessed with Korean culture when it came to exporting Hallyu.

Hallyu is also attempting to disrupt the U.S. comic industry with the “Webtoon” platform led by LINE. Koreans have long stopped reading comics through books as the industry has successfully transitioned into the digital medium, or what Koreans call Webtoon. LINE Webtoon decided to get into the U.S. comic market with the know-how they compiled back in Korea. It seems to be settling into the market quite successfully, with 10 million daily readers and 35 million monthly readers in North America. The key to such growth seems to be not only the high-quality Korean comics, but wide accessibility for both creators and readers in the United States. The system works the same as Korea, providing free daily comics for the consumers and holding contests for amateur cartoonists to show off their work. Instead of putting a wedge between the U.S. consumers and cartoonists by forcing them to read Korean comics in the process, LINE made sure that these two meet each other easily. It is evident that this was the driving force for the company, in that the bestseller list in the U.S. market is mostly dominated by comics that are created domestically which appeal more to U.S. readers. Conventional cartoonists in the U.S. are trying to secure a spot on the digital platform as well, the most notable case being LINE’s collaboration with Legendary Comics.

What these three examples have in common is that they showed how “Hallyu” may no longer be the sole domain of South Koreans anymore. To constantly expand abroad, Hallyu needs to transcend geographic boundaries and collaborate with people who can develop “Hallyu” ideas or platforms innovatively. The end result may be totally alien to Koreans themselves, but it will still retain parts of Korean DNA that will provide an enjoyable experience to foreign consumers

These examples also signal that Koreans are securing a reputation as major developers in the global entertainment market, as opposed to being passive consumers of Western content as in the past. This shows that there is a possibility for South Korea to formidably compete in intangible areas aside from traditional heavy industries such as automotive or electronics, which may face difficulty in the near future if the ongoing KORUS FTA renegotiation results in more barriers for those products. In short, there is still hope for South Korea to diversify its exports with the United States.

There is still long way to go, as this new wave of content is still in development and the companies are suffering roadblocks while penetrating the Western market. However, it will still be interesting to keep track of where these endeavors might spin off in the future, and whether they will become a new form of Hallyu.

Hwan Kang is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Seoul National University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Disney | ABC Television Group’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Korean Classical Musicians Need to Become Entrepreneurs

By Paul Sung

Classical music is a dying art that is shrinking partly due to the lack of entrepreneurial innovation. This trend is especially evident in South Korea.

Although native Korean musicians like Sohn Jeung-beum, Son Yeol-eum, Yekwon Sunwoo, and Jasmine Choi have risen with much success with their music, only a few classical musicians are able to attain the prestige and sustain their living from their profession. According to Korean American classical musician and entrepreneur Hugh Sung, Korean classical musicians are restrained by the overbearing teacher-student relationship and their inability to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of innovation.

Korean teachers tend to want excessive control over their students. They restrict students to only a certain number of pieces and therefore discourage students from exploring other pieces and thinking outside the box. These teachers also discourage the flexibility of learning from multiple mentors. In an ever-shrinking industry like classical music, teachers are increasingly concerned about losing their students. As a result, they condition students to learn from only one mentor, thereby discouraging alternative means of growth. Many Korean students go overseas to countries like the United States and Germany in order to escape the heavy handed and rigid teaching environment of their native mentors. Students who become teachers unfortunately carry on this teacher-student dynamics by imposing the same rigid methodologies onto their own pupils.

As with their non-musical peers, classical musicians have an intense focus on education, but they tend to come out of training with the capability of performing only a very limited number of pieces. They are drilled to perform to the best of their ability, but they lack distinguishable traits that set them apart from each other. Due to their narrow focus on such a particular art, young classical musicians also miss the opportunities to expand their skill sets and to explore other career options. If a student decides not to stay in the classical music field, he is left unprepared for the workforce in other industries.

The lack of networking skills among Korean classical musicians also hampers career opportunities in the industry. Korean musicians tend to have good social circles among family and friends, but they do not have a good grasp in networking to a wider audience. Many musicians have their parents pay for concerts and invite friends, but resorting to these small social circles rarely leads to much success in the classical music profession. Young Korean classical musicians, as they currently operate, are falling behind because of their lack of creativity. A mindset of innovation, the ability or willingness to reinvent oneself, and a wider range of professional skills are what Koreans in the classical music industry need in order to succeed.

Koreans Need Entrepreneurship in Classical Music

Korean musicians face a dilemma similar to other Korean businesses in the services industry. According to Robert Atkinson in the Korea Economic Institute’s 2016 Korea Economy publication, Korea’s efficiency in using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) lags behind other countries like the United States. Despite being in a tech-savvy country that heavily uses social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and KakaoTalk, Korean musicians have yet to fully utilize such tools. More Korean musicians can especially increase their presence on YouTube by not just showcasing the classical pieces they already know, but also by learning and presenting different styles and pieces in new ways that positively attract attention. Online musicians such as the YouTube channels Animenz Piano Sheets and xclassicalcatx tap into the Japanese anime community with their instrumental covers. Japanese and American pop culture references have even been in use by businesses such as the food chain Arby’s.

Equipped with their specific art training and expanding upon it, classical musicians can also expand in other industries such as drama and videogame original sound tracks (OSTs), and K-pop. Yiruma, a classically-trained Korean composer known for his works in Korean dramas, even had his work used in an Australian drama “Packed to the Rafters.” Korean American musician Jennifer Lee, known by her stage name TOKiMONSTA, is another musician who was classically trained as a pianist. She became a DJ who develops beats for different genres such as EDM and has her music featured in various events such as a virtual reality concert with TheWaveVR. Even the flutist Jasmine Choi performed songs outside of classical music with covers to popular songs such as “Hoot” by Girls’ Generation.

Korean classical musicians can learn from U.S. musicians and entrepreneurs to adapt greater flexibility in the way they sustain or alter their musical paths and educate younger performers. Using online platforms not only for fan-building, but also for digital education and networking can be one of the many ways that Korean classical musicians can thrive. Whatever paths Korean classical musicians decide to take, they should seriously consider the benefits of incorporating technology and business to their practice.

Most importantly, the mindset of classical musicians needs to change. As Hugh Sung notes, classical musicians should shift from a self-serving desire of putting value in one’s own identity as an artist to think instead of how they can fulfill the needs of others. This entrepreneurial mindset of giving value for other people, whether as a performer or teacher, is one step in the right direction.

Paul Sung is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from DNG com’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Ten Useful Korean Dating Terms

By Sang Kim and Jenna Gibson

If you’ve ever been in Korea around Valentine’s Day (or Peppero Day, or Christmas), you know that Korean dating culture is no joke. To help you navigate the world of relationships in Korea, we’ve compiled a list of 10 useful Korean words to describe different aspects of dating and relationships.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-02

금사빠 – geum sah bbah

금방 사랑에 빠지다  / 금방 사랑에 빠지는 사람 (falling in love right away)

Similar to the phrase “love at first sight,” this abbreviated word is used to describe someone who falls in love very easily and quickly, but this phrase is different in a way a person falls in love too quickly and it does not last very long.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-01

품절남/품절녀 – pum jeol nam/pum jeol nyuh (sold out man/woman)

The literal translation is a male or female that is “sold out” and no longer available. This word is used when someone you find charming or popular is getting married or is already married.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-06

모쏠 – mo ssol

모태쏠로 (“solo from birth”)

Someone who was never in a romantic relationship in their entire life.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-07

초식남 – choshiknam (“herbivore man”) / 건어물녀 – gunomullyuh (“dried fish woman”)

Originated from a Japanese word 草食系, this word literally means “herbivore man.” It was initially used to describe men who are more sensitive and gentle/docile like herbivores, but now it is mostly used to describe guys who are not interested in dating or marriage. They would rather spend time and money on their self-improvement, fashion, and hobbies.

There many debatable theories behind why guys become 초식남. Some of the reasons include concerns for lack of personal life/hobbies when in relationships or once married, fatigue from relationships, financial affordability, or they simply just have no interest in dating.

Also originated from a Japanese word, 乾魚物女 from a 2003 comic, “Dried fish woman” is a female version of 초식남. This word refers to women who focus more on their career and have no desire to do anything else after work. Typical characteristics of 건어물녀 include, changing into a comfortable sweatpants/shirts after a long day at work, relaxing, watching TV and being a couch potato at home. They have no interest or desire in socializing (including dating) and would rather stay home alone.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-08

볼매 – bol mae

볼수록 매력있다 (the more you look, more charm)

This abbreviated word is used to describe when someone who has hidden charms. They might not be the most attractive person, but once you get to know them they are more attractive and charming.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-09

돌싱 – dol sing

돌아온 싱글 (returned single)

Someone who has gotten divorced and has “came back” to being single.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-04

밀당 – mil dang

밀고 당기다 (push and pull)

Every relationship needs a little push and pull. In the context of relationships, 밀당often means “playing hard to get.”

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-03

썸 – ssum

Taken from the English word “something,” this describes the special something between two people who seem to have feelings for each other but haven’t taken the plunge and started dating.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-05

뇌섹남/뇌섹녀 – nwae saek nam/nwae saek nyeo

뇌가 섹시한 남자/여자 (“sexy brain man/woman”)

Someone who is attractive because of their smarts can be described as a뇌섹남 (male) or뇌섹녀 (female). This means a man or woman whose brain is sexy.

Relationship Words Individual Graphics-10

남사친/여사친 – nam sa chin/yeo sa chin

남자 사람 친구/ 여자 사람 친구 (“male/female person friend”)

Literally translated, these two words mean “male person friend” and “female person friend.” You can use this to emphasize that the person is just a friend who happens to be a man or a woman, as opposed to a boyfriend or girlfriend.

If you liked this list, check out the other posts in our series of useful Korean words: 10 Useful Korean Slang Terms and Ten Korean Words that Don’t Exist in English.

Sang Kim is the Director of Public Affairs & Intern Coordinator. Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image from 김문규’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. Graphics by KEI’s Jenna Gibson.

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As Chinese Tourists Continue to Drop, Korea Turns to the Middle East

By Jenna Gibson

As several KEI analyses have shown, South Korea’s tourism industry  has been one of the main casualties of China’s economic retaliation over deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. New estimates from the Korea Tourism Organization show that China’s retaliation could cost Korea up to 5 million tourists this year, five times as many as when the MERS outbreak significantly dampened tourism in early 2015.

In June 2017, Korea saw a 36 percent drop in tourist entries, due in large part to a 66.4 percent decrease in Chinese visitors compared to June 2016. At that time, Chinese tourists made up 48.8 percent of all entries into Korea – a figure that’s now down to 25.7 percent.

But the numbers also reveal some good news that illuminate an important avenue for future growth in Korea’s tourism industry. While Chinese visitors continued to drop, the number of tourists from the Middle East have jumped significantly, recording a 71 percent increase from June 2016 to June 2017.

And, perhaps more importantly, tourists from the Middle East spend significantly more during their time in Korea than those from other areas, according to a study by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute. Their recent survey of tourists in Korea showed that Middle Eastern visitors spent an average of $2,593 each during their trip, followed by Chinese tourists at $2,059 each. The average for all visitors to Korea is significantly lower, at $1,625.

In order to cash in on this growing market, the Korean government and the tourism industry are focusing on providing more services for Middle Eastern tourists, including a push to increase the number of halal certified restaurants around the country. Just this month, 117 more restaurants received their halal certification, bringing the total to 252. In addition, many popular tourist attractions have added prayer rooms for their Muslim visitors, including Nami Island, Lotte World, and Coex Mall, as well as Incheon International Airport and Busan’s Gimhae International Airport.

MENA tourism graphic-01

Part of the drive for more tourists from the Middle East choosing to visit Korea is the explosive popularity of Hallyu across the region. Take Iran, for example. There, fascination with Korean culture started back in the mid-2000s, when the historical drama ‘Dae Jang Geum’ was broadcast on state TV and garnered 86 percent ratings nationwide. In a 2017 report of the most popular shows on Netflix around the world, Iran was only one of two non-Asian countries to put a Korean drama (2012’s Love Rain) on the top of their queues.

In June, CJ E&M, Korea’s largest media company, said it will be opening a Turkish unit to increase its presence in Turkey, where locals can’t seem to get enough Korean cultural content. Considering that the filming sites of many popular Korean dramas have become popular tourist destinations, this increase in the popularity of Korean TV shows could lead to overseas fans travelling to Korea to see the spot where their favorite drama couple fell in love.

With the Korean tourism industry continuing to focus on enticing Middle Eastern visitors as well as tourists from all parts of the world, there is certainly an opening to offset some of the losses from the drop in Chinese tourism over the last year or so. But there is still a long way to go – even with the huge increase in visitors, Middle Eastern tourists still only make up around 1 percent of entries into Korea.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Image from yadem.hayseed’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Five Documentaries About Life in North Korea

By Jenna Gibson

Life in North Korea is largely unknown to much of the outside world. The following five documentaries provide insight into the lives of North Koreans and the challenges faced by those who try to escape.

1. Under the Sun (Available on Netflix)

This is Pyongyang, presented virtually without comment.  By Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky, Under the Sun was originally begun with the sanction of the North Korean government. Throughout filming, Mansky was able to hide additional footage, which eventually made up the final documentary. It shows the main subjects, a young girl and her family, recording scenes over and over, with a government official off-screen directing every word, every movement, every smile captured by the camera.

If there is one critique of this documentary, it is that the lack of explanation makes this film inaccessible for viewers who are not well-versed in what’s going on in the DPRK. When I mentioned this to a Russian-American friend, however, she pointed out that this film was made with a Russian audience in mind – an audience that would immediately recognize some of the details in staging that Americans may miss. In any case, this is certainly an interesting and unique look into what the North Korean regime wants the outside world to see.

2. Crossing Heaven’s Border

This Emmy-nominated documentary by a South Korean journalist follows the desperate journey of North Korean defectors fleeing to freedom. It’s one thing to read that defectors have to endure a harrowing journey, it’s another thing to watch them crawl through miles of dense jungle, desperately trying to escape detection.

The journalist released a book of the same name a few years later, giving more of the backstory of how he decided to follow this journey, and the difficulties he and his crew endured (not to mention the defectors they were trailing).

3. The Lovers and the Despot

Truth is stranger than fiction, particularly when North Korea is involved. And this may be one of the most bizarre stories of all, involving a kidnapped actress, her unsuccessful savior, and a movie-loving dictator.

Kim Jong-il was notorious for his love of movies, and directed many films over his lifetime.

In 1978, he decided that he needed new talent to star in his projects, and decided to lure prominent South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee to Hong Kong, where she was kidnapped by North Korean agents. Her ex-husband, South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, attempted to find her, and wound up in Pyongyang as well.

The most fascinating piece of this film is the actual recorded conversations between Kim Jong-il and his captives, which the two secretly recorded in part to prove that the crazy story of their disappearance truly did happen. This is a must-see for casual or more serious DPRK-watchers.

4. I am Sun Mu (Available on Netflix)

This film shows a very different side to the plight of the North Korean people – following a defector artist who is pushing back against the regime. Sun Mu (a psedonym that means “no boundaries”) was once a propaganda artist in North Korea. Now, after having escaped, he has turned his art into satire against the regime.

The film follows Sun Mu as he prepares for an art show in China, a bold and dangerous proposition considering the close ties between Beijing and Pyongyang. This documentary is must-see for casual and professional North Korea watchers alike.

5. Frontline – Secret State of North Korea

Using secret footage smuggled out of North Korea as well as defector and expert interviews, this film is aimed mainly for a general audience that may not know much about North Korea. A lot of the focus is on how North Korea has changed, including the emerging black market. This project is a great introduction into life in North Korea today.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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5 Interesting Documentaries about South Korea

By Jenna Gibson

Historically, local documentaries have not been that popular in South Korea – the first commercially successful documentary in the country was 2008’s “Old Partner,” which shattered domestic records just by attracting 100,000 viewers in the first few weeks after its release. Since then, more independent films have begun to crop up, telling real-life stories about different aspects of Korea. The five films below represent some of those stories.

1. Twinsters (2015)

Imagine waking up one day after living 25 years as an only child and finding out that you have an identical twin. This scenario is not just for dramatic soap operas – it really happened to two Korean adoptees. Twinsters follows Samantha Futerman, who grew up in the United States, and Anais Bordier, who grew up in France, as they get to know the twin they never knew they had. While this film is about the two women and their growing relationship, it also touches on broader themes related to international adoption and what culture and heritage means for these adoptees as they get older.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

 2. Reach for the Sky (2015)

The hyper-competitive Korean education system is not a new subject, but Reach for the Sky approaches it from a somewhat new angle – Repeaters. These students choose to spend a full year after their high school graduation focused only on improving their college entrance exam score with the hopes of getting into a better university. The film follows a group of these students throughout their repeating year, telling through them the story of a society where the name of your university can determine the course of your life.

Available for purchase (DVD and streaming) here: http://reachfortheskydoc.com/#

3. My Love, Don’t Cross that River (2014)

 This touching film about an elderly couple and their 76-year marriage was a smash success, becoming the most commercially successful independent film in Korea’s history. Slow-moving but never dull, the film lets the couple’s love speak for itself – like when 98-year-old Jo Byeong-man throws leaves on his wife while raking their yard, her exasperated response indicating that this has happened many times before. In this way, the film successfully portrays themes of love, family, and endurance without any need for narration or explanation.

Available for purchase (DVD and streaming) through Amazon Video.

4. The Battle of Chosin (2016)

This PBS special retells the pivotal Korean War battle of the Chosin Reservoir through the eyes of troops who fought there in 1950. Often known as the “Forgotten War,” the experiences during the Korean War nevertheless played a key role in shaping how Americans approached the world for the next 50 years. This film helps put the Chosin battle, and the experiences of the soldiers who fought there, into this wider perspective.

Available on the PBS website.

5. Even the Rivers (2015)

A brief but helpful introduction into some of the challenges faced by multicultural children in South Korea. Based on interviews with students, parents and teachers, this film touches on the ways Korea has become more multicultural, and what that means for the children who are growing up and going to school in a country that was, until very recently, entirely homogeneous.

Available to watch free on Vimeo – information on the film’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/eventherivers/

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Epping Forest DC’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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For Koreans Its About More Than Valentine’s Day

By Junil Kim

Known equally for inducing both sighs and groans from hopeful and jaded people worldwide, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner on February 14th. If the mere thought of Valentine’s Day is more headache-inducing than swoon-worthy, you could consider the wider array of South Korea’s romantically themed holidays. It doesn’t take an exhaustive look into Korean pop culture to realize that Koreans are a fan of romance, as evidenced by these various holidays.

Valentine’s Day

Unlike America and other Western countries, Valentine’s Day in South Korea is largely a holiday when Korean women give chocolate to men, though it is similarly celebrated on February 14th. This tradition is similar to Japan’s version of Valentine’s Day, when Japanese women give “giri-choco” as a platonic gift and “honmei-choco” as an affectionate gift to male acquaintances. Due to this tradition, retailers will primarily target female shoppers. Couples will still typically celebrate the holiday together and it is not uncommon and sometimes expected for men to also treat women on Valentine’s Day.

White Day

White Day, which is celebrated a month after Valentine’s Day on March 14th in both South Korea and Japan, is the man’s turn to shower gifts on romantic partners. Although not a strictly kept tradition, the “rule of three” in reciprocal gift giving is normally applied to White Day, where the man should give a gift roughly three times the value his lover gave him on Valentine’s Day. As the name implies, gifts are typically white in color with white chocolate being the classic gift of choice.

Black Day

For those that are not as romantically fortunate, Black Day on April 14th is celebrated (or cursed) by Korean singles. Singles will traditionally congregate together and eat jjajang myeon, a Chinese-style Korean noodle dish covered in black bean sauce. The holiday is celebrated more in jest than in actual sorrow, though Black Day purists will assert that the day is reserved only for those that did not receive any gifts on Valentine’s Day and White Day. Despite restaurants and matchmaking services that pounce on the downbeat holiday, advertising for Black Day is lightyears away from the ever-present marketing efforts of retailers during Valentine’s Day and White Day.

Pepero Day

Perhaps the most baffling of South Korea’s romantic holidays is Pepero Day, which is named after the famous Korean chocolate covered snack. Due to its unmistakable stick shape, Pepero Day is celebrated on November 11th (11/11). Yonhap News reported that as much of half of Lotte’s annual Pepero sales come from the holiday. Convenience stores in particular benefit greatly from the holiday and display giant gift baskets of Pepero adorned with stuffed animals and fancy wrapping. Ambitious lovers will also make elaborate homemade versions of Pepero by dipping thin candy breadsticks in chocolate and covering them in decorations. The day and snack is also the source of some mild controversy due to its obvious similarities with the Japanese Pocky snack and associated holiday, which is also on November 11th.

If these holidays sound a bit excessive, keep in mind that there are other monthly couples days that occur on the 14th of the other calendar months. Although days like Kiss Day (June) and Hug Day (December) may not be as widely celebrated, Americans can rest easy this Valentine’s Day knowing that there is only one major romantic holiday to worry about.

Junil Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Graphic by Jenna Gibson, Director of Communications, Korea Economic Institute of America. 

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Happy Halloween: Korea Shows a Growing Interest in the Spooky Holiday

By Jenna Gibson

Halloween as we know it in the United States is still not widely celebrated in South Korea. Trick or treating is limited to kindergarten parties and English hagwons, and you’re unlikely to see many jack-o-lanterns or skeletons decorating peoples’ homes.

But in recent years some parts of the holiday have been gaining momentum. In fact, according to a poll by online retail store Gmarket, 72 percent of Koreans are interested in attending a Halloween party – with 82 percent of those in their 20s saying they were interested in participating in festivities.

The problem? Despite the interest, 69 percent of respondents admitted that they had never actually celebrated Halloween.

Things may be looking up for the spooky holiday, though. This year, many stores, including Seoul’s Coex Mall are holding special events and sales for the holiday. Dunkin Donuts is releasing a special “Party Pack” featuring bat- and mummy-shaped donuts, and Holly’s Coffee has included a Halloween theme for its annual “friends and family sale.” For the first time, amusement park Lotte World will be turning its folk museum into a haunted house and holding a special “Halloween Hip-Hop Night Party” on October 30 that will run until 5:00am on the 31st.

The Seoul city government is even getting in on the fun, hosting a Halloween dance party along the Han River where guests are encouraged to dress in traditional Korean outfits (hanbok). According to a city official, this party is a way to “interpret Halloween – a Western festivity – in a Korean way.”

Online, the Halloween spirit continues. “해피 할로윈” (“Happy Halloween”) was a global trending topic on Twitter throughout the day, thanks in part to SM Entertainment, which held its annual Halloween party this week featuring many of the biggest names in K-pop decked out elaborate costumes.




Clearly there is plenty of interest in Halloween among Koreans, but there are certainly some obstacles that remain. One scary part of Halloween in Korea has nothing to do with ghosts and goblins – it has to do with the outrageous prices for kids’ costumes. A JTBC News video shows outfits online going for upwards of $500. A store-bought Elsa costume for Frozen fans will run close to $100. One concerned mother explained that she felt pressure to buy these expensive costumes for her child because other mothers would be doing so.

One other interesting obstacle could be cultural difference. In Korea, summer is the season for horror. Most horror movies plan their releases for July and August with the idea that scary stories can give people a chill to help cool them down during the hot summer months. On the other hand, because of pagan and Christian religious traditions of honoring the dead in late October and early November, most Westerners consider fall to be the time to celebrate all things haunted.

Clearly there is a lot of interest among Koreans in learning more about Halloween and celebrating the holiday. But with more and more outlets embracing the spooky theme, perhaps we will see Halloween become mainstream in Korea in the near future.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. KEI intern Juni Kim contributed to the infographic in this post.

Photo from tracy ducasse’s photostream on Flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.