Is it even worth writing about this? I haven’t seen anything on the Korean-English news websites, but it would seem that the mayor of Seoul, Bak Won Soon, who started his new job three or four months ago after being catapulted to fame on the endorsement of Ahn Chul Soo (rich and famous for creating near-useless Korean Antivirus software while wearing a doctor’s labcoat), just got his son, Bak Joo Sheen, out of his mandatory military service as a result of a fraudulent MRI.
In a country where every able-bodied male is supposed to serve in the military for two years, and where the mayor of Seoul is (supposedly) the second most powerful man in Korea, this is kind of a big deal; although I used to believe that compulsory military service could unify a fractured society, in practice the rich will always find ways to exempt their children from danger, and most of the Korean guys you talk to here will complain about this problem. Flying particularly pregnant Korean mothers over the Pacific to give birth on American soil is one method of gaining exemption; bribing doctors is another.
Here’s how it went down. The mayor’s son graduated from college last year. He joined the military on August 29th, complained of leg pain, and went home four days later on September 2nd. His father was running for mayor at this time, and he said that his son had been seriously injured while playing soccer, a common past time in the Korean military (on the forums, or “cafes” that my wife frequents, women complain that their spouses never stop telling stories about playing soccer in the military).
Anyway, the son didn’t get any treatment because there was really nothing wrong with him. His father was elected on October 26th. The military called the son back into service on November 25th, but he didn’t go. Instead he visited a hospital in Seoul (in Jayong-dong) that has a reputation for giving exemptions to rich young men. He got his exemption, and rather than going through basic training, he began work as a public servant, which usually takes the form of napping, smoking, checking computers, and staring off into space at train stations or subway stops. Men with health or wealth problems usually do this for two years in lieu of compulsory military service.
Several months later, Kang Young Seok, a independent representative from Mapo-gu in Seoul with a very popular blog which is the source of most of the biased information in this post, somehow discovered what had happened, and accused the mayor of funny business. Kang added that he would resign if he was wrong. He demanded proof of the son’s health problems, said that the kid should be checked in public or by different doctors, and then tried and failed and then somehow succeeded in getting copies of the mayor’s son’s MRIs, which apparently belong to a rather obese individual.
In response to these embarrassments, Mayor Bak Won Soon has refused to answer questions about his son, thereby proving his innocence.
Some decades ago a Korean presidential candidate named Lee Hoi Chang lost because his sons had not done their service, as they were either too short or too skinny to dodge bullets, which, as everyone knows, only strike the smallest and thinnest targets.
Bak Won Soon has tried to cast himself in the mold of the populist everyman, running as an independent in a country that at first glance would appear to be sick of its endemic corruption, though Koreans have been electing shamelessly corrupt politicians since the inception of modern democracy here, right before the Seoul Olympics in 1988 when the last dictator stepped down.
One of the best posts on the ever-popular Expat Hell essentially explains why the government is so corrupt: the chaebol, the huge Korean conglomerates (Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo, KT, etc.), own the country. They existed long before democracy ever did in this place—the chaebol era begins with the Great Dictator Bak Chung Hee—and as a result of a significant head start, it will probably take the people and the government years or even decades to get these monopolies under control, as it is currently completely impossible to live in Korea without forking over most of your income to chaebol supermarkets or chaebol real estate interests.
In America the rich use religion, homosexuality, and the threat of terrorism and Islam, to zombify the majority of the electorate, while here the specters of American economic interests, North Korean attacks, or territorial disputes with Japan, work fairly well in frightening Koreans into electing politicians who do not represent their interests in the slightest. Prices continue to rise, wages are stagnant, unemployment is officially around four percent (though it may be as high as twenty!), and you will not meet anyone anywhere who has confidence in the government, the economy, or the future. One cannot help but conclude (in a rather fascist way) that people are sometimes not worthy of democracy. Still, it beats the alternative.
Despite all of this, the trains still run on time. We met with our Chinese tutor this morning, and she seemed quite fond of Korea; she described it as a free society, which goes to show just how constraining things must be back in China.
The next round of legislative elections is just a few months away, and currently every last person working in the Korean government, from the president on down to the lowliest bomb-sniffing dog at the airport, is under investigation for corruption. Just last night on the news my wife and I got another good look at Mr. Happy Face, Bak Hee Tae (a more fitting name might be Bak Hee Hee!), the Speaker of the Parliament, who resigned last week after it was revealed that he had been forking over envelopes stuffed with cash to buy votes. He also sealed off the parliament during the debate over the recent Free Trade Agreement with the United States because South Korea only appears in the news around the world when politicians start throwing chairs or tear gas at each other, when a man marries a pillow, or when a baby starves to death after its parents get addicted to playing virtual online MMORPG baby simulators.
His party, Han Nala Dang, “One Country Party”, or “Great Country Party”, or “Korean Country Party”, or “Grand National Party”, or “Grudge Country Party”, depending on how you translate Han, a rough equivalent of the Republican Party back in the USSA, just changed its name to the Sae Nooli or “New World”, or “New Frontier”, party, since they have become associated with rampant levels of corruption in the public consciousness. The idea that they could somehow purify themselves of all wrong by a superficial alteration of this kind is very typically Korean (the government is obsessed with national branding, see “Korea Sparkling”, “Dynamic Busan”, etc., while the people themselves are obsessed with plastic surgery), and also completely idiotic.
The election for the presidency will come at the end of the year, about one month after Barack Obama is given a second term, but on April 11th Koreans will go to the polls to elect new representatives and officials across the country. The New World Party, or the Grudge Party, whatever the hell you want to call them, the conservatives, are widely expected to have their asses handed to them.
The equivalent of the Democratic Party, Minjoo Dang, or the “Democratic United Party”, will then take power and replace the conservatives as the ones being at the heart of every corruption scandal, while at the same time restarting negotiations with North Korea, meaning that the South will start paying the salaries of the North’s nuclear scientists and filling the bellies of hungry North Korean soldiers in exchange for the usual empty promises of disarmament and reconciliation.
Bak Gun Hey, the daughter of Park Chung Hee, a dictator who made Korea into the prosperous and corrupt country that it is today, is currently running for the presidency, and thanks to the inevitable scandals that are going to occur between now and the presidential election under the watch of the liberals I think her victory is a fairly safe bet. Her only significant opponent, Ahn Chul Soo, has taken a page out of Sarah Palin’s book (“Shooting Wolves From A Helicopter With Russia On The Horizon!: My Life” by Sarah Palin) and refused to declare his candidacy, although he is obviously running as an independent. He is remarkable for being the only Korean in existence who ever gave any money to charity—half of his vast fortune, in fact. Despite the complete uselessness of the software that made him rich, and the fact that Koreans buy it purely because it was made in Korea (and purely because most of them are still using Internet Explorer 6), this generosity gives me some pause.
My wife is planning to vote for Bak Gun Hey, and I would probably vote for her too, because although both parties totally suck, one gives money and food to North Korea, and one does not. Liberals and conservatives are essentially identical here except for that distinction. Both are equally corrupt. Both are safely, snugly in the pockets of the conglomerates, and they will continue to luxuriate there until the Korean public stops caring about Dokdo more than monopoly, corruption, and income inequality.
Most of the English teachers who come here are probably fairly convinced that Korea is a cheap place to live, because they don’t have to pay rent while the food and transportation is definitely very inexpensive in comparison with most western countries. But after you get married, after you get stuck here, after you have to start paying for rent and for diapers and baby formula, you start to see how ridiculous the prices are. Most consumer goods are sold at exorbitant prices as a result of the chaebol stranglehold and the Korean public’s complete ignorance of the fact that the same items are a lot cheaper in the rest of the world. A few days ago I tried to convince my wife to look for a textbook we wanted to get on amazon.com; in Korea the book costs $50, on amazon.com it will set you back $16. Similarly, an apartment that wouldn’t be fit for an American slum will set you back $200,000 in Korea.
Of course our argument became an issue of which country is better rather than which country has the better prices, so in a sense I think Koreans deserve these troubles—nationalism, the modern opiate of the masses, is off the charts here—and in another sense it would seem that, in a capitalist society, you can either have low prices and no jobs (as in America) or high prices and just barely enough jobs (as in Korea). You can’t have low prices and enough jobs, not without a heavy dose of socialism or communism, which as we all know, is the devil’s work. So long as people are working to produce and purchase unnecessary luxury items for only the richest among them, rather than teaming up to provide necessities for everyone, these problems will persist.
I am not sure if there are any prominent liberals in South Korea who are not likewise supporters of the fascist North Korean government, which might be appropriately described as a “concentration camp state“, or what would happen if the Nazis were still around, but stuck in an extremely small, poor country, in East Asia.
My wife and I first heard about this scandal on the radio yesterday while we were driving in a taxi toward a Buddhist restaurant that is worth the trip across the Pacific to experience; and last night at dinner with some of her relatives we both caught a few minutes of a bizarre documentary show highlighting the difficulties of Koreans who are just turning thirty (even though most of them are actually only around twenty-eight years old because people do not know how to count their ages in this part of the world). One young man was frustrated with the difficulties of learning English, and we were granted a brief glimpse of his tried-and-true Korean learning method: repeatedly taking tests which solely consist of multiple choice questions. He started crying, in describing how hard it is to learn English, and the camera watched him snort and wipe his tears away for a good quiet minute or so before switching to a musical montage which consisted of angsty sentimental karaoke-quality music combined with shots of ce pauvre type walking around some crummy Korean neighborhood at night.
If you think you can learn a language purely by answering multiple choice questions, you deserve everything you get.
The show then visited a young couple which was running some kind of internet shopping website out of its unbearably windowless closet-sized apartment. They mentioned their wedding plans, and spoke of how they planned to blow a hundred thousand dollars on the ceremony, which is very typical of this country. Together they had seven thousand dollars saved up. They hoped to borrow the rest. They were sad. They feared for the future. A different montage with a different track of angsty Korean frustration music started playing, to shots of hands wrapping up socks and hats for shipping.
If you blow a hundred thousand dollars on your wedding when you have almost no money to your name, you deserve everything you get.
Everything I’ve written about in this shamelessly long post is not purely the result of swindling politicians: it takes two to tango: when you care more about Dokdo than the monopolistic stranglehold on your country, when nationalism trumps common sense, you get exactly what you deserve.
It would have been impossible to write this post without the help of my wife, whose name I am withholding out of fear of the Korean Netizenry, which is famous for destroying the lives of anyone who steps out of line.
Edit: And so, as it all turned out, Kang Young Seok was wrong! The mayor’s son really did have some problem with his spine! It really was his x-ray! How embarrassing!