Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 34: Brands, Counterfeiting and Piracy

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


A week earlier while I was waiting to go on air at the station, a situation was posed which led me to say “But that would be unethical”. I needed to repeat that last word a number of times. We quickly established that the English word ‘ethical’ may sound hilarious to Koreans. I wasn’t entirely convinced that this was merely a phonetic issue, which resolved me to pick a topic related to ethics for this week’s show.

Whatever I talk about on the radio, above all else I’ve been told that it has to be entertaining, so it’s fair to say I peppered the segment with the word ‘ethical’ on the principle that if it makes people laugh, instant comedy. I’ve also experimented with the word ‘morally’, but I don’t think the audience is quite ready for it yet, although I’m told ‘contract’ is quite an amusing idea here too.

I wish I was able to communicate with the engineer, because perhaps then we could have set up some canned laughter for every time the word ‘ethical’ was used. That would have been great. Anyway, we decided that ‘ethical’ was the ‘word of the day’.


Korea seems to be a country which is particularly obsessed by brands, whether they are real or fake. I’ve always thought it must be something in the Korean psyche – there’s a need to belong to the clan.

The Korean Bag Market

I read in a newspaper that “For Koreans, a designer bag can earn prestige and maybe even a profit.” What that referred to was the fact that in some cases, second-hand prices for these bags are rising above the original purchase price because the price of new bags is rising so quickly.

As a financial trader it reminds me of the stock market – and it does seem that some people in Korea are buying these bags as investments and agonising about waiting to buy them while watching the price move away from them. I think nine times out of ten, when you find yourself in that position, it’s best to let it go. But why do prices keep rising? It seems that from the price differences between Korea and other countries, the brand companies are just raising prices here because they know the market will bear it. They are ripping people off in other words, turning Korea into a bubble-market. [This was especially noticeable when the recent Korea-EU Free Trade Agreement came into effect, and the removal of tariffs were actually accompanied by European designer brand price rises, instead of price cuts]. So Koreans are going overseas to buy these bags instead. [Yes, it’s international designer bag arbitrage!]

The 397 Generation

It’s not as if we don’t have brands in England or the West in general, but there seems to be more trust for them here. I think this is bad economically, because it makes it difficult for new brands to break into the market, and you end up with the chaebol system leading to a lack of choice. Two reasons why this is bad have been in the news recently – large chaebol-built apartment buildings have been accused of poor safety, and then there’s the beer issue. When I got here I kept seeing the same two brands of beer – which largely turns out to be because there are only two major domestic breweries [plus once again, tariffs help]. Korea isn’t a very diverse society but if nothing else you should really have diversity with beer.

Apparently a lot of the brand-worship these days is being blamed on the ‘397 Generation’, who are in their 30s, went to college in the 90s, and were born in the 70s. But from what I see, it seems more like it should be blamed on what I would call the ‘295 Generation’ - 20-somethings with IQs around the 95 mark [logically meaning in England we should probably have a ‘285 Generation’]. Anyway, it certainly isn’t limited to young people, because older people in Korea appear to have an obsession with German cars [specifically, Audis – which mainly men buy – and BMWs, which mainly women buy].

But does this make people happy? In a recent OECD Happiness Survey South Korea ranked 26th out of 34 in the Index, with 36% of South Koreans saying they were satisfied with their life [I don’t know who these people are either because it’s nobody I know here, leading me to wonder how honest the respondents were considering the potential loss-of-face involved in telling the truth]. A lot of it is linked to stress, and a fixation with money [and probably brands by implication]. But I thought a Gallup poll around the same time offered a fascinating insight into Korean life: Koreans aspire to be richer and happier, but apparently they hate rich people.

Faking it

So people harbour a lot of brand aspirations here, and animosity towards those that achieve what they don’t. Perhaps it’s this which leads to the view that if you can’t have it for real, you have to fake it. Making counterfeit items big business in South Korea.

I was surprised when I came here and saw all the counterfeit goods. It’s not as if we don’t have this problem in England as well, but here in Busan they are just out on the street in plain view in districts such as Nampodong. And then up in Seoul you have areas such as Itaewon and Myeong-dong where it’s said that 1-in-10 street vendors are selling counterfeits (and I can’t help thinking that number is probably only that low because a lot of the other vendors are selling food).

But there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of incentive to crack down because it’s good for tourism, with evidence that Japanese and Chinese tourists particularly come to Korea because the quality of fakes here is known to be ‘very high’. And this is the tip of the iceberg, because many more counterfeit items are being sold online.

Does it matter?

Personally I don’t care about bags, and I don’t get paying $1,000 for one. But morally, the business of counterfeiting is unethical [stare into control room]. But then more visible danger is counterfeit drugs; counterfeit goods are a kind of cheat, but counterfeit drugs can kill.

Doing business is an issue – if I were visiting Korea to sign a deal with a company, and saw all the counterfeiting activity going on and that it appeared to be so publicly acceptable, I might think this makes the country and people I’m dealing with in it seem less ethical, like with honouring contracts for example. So I’d wonder, is Korea an ethical or unethical country?

Software Piracy

It also extends to the media industry of course. At PIFF [The ‘Pusan’ International Film Festival], when a message came up saying “No Piracy in Korea”, people laughed. And when I first came to Busan I noticed that while there were shops everywhere, there appeared to be a distinct lack of music, DVD and software stores. Every shop seemed to be running Windows XP Professional though – which is a premium priced version of the Microsoft operating system – and you have to think that the reason is because they’re probably not genuine copies.

I used to be a software developer and I like the ‘open source’ concept but it doesn’t pay the bills. The incentive to build software that would help people in this country isn’t as prevalent as it should be, because there’s no reward if people pirate their software rather than buy. In fact it’s said that piracy in Korea may cost this country around 20,000 IT jobs. [I’ve never been totally convinced by these arguments – it may well cost 20,000 IT sector jobs, but I think the money saved just results in jobs getting shifted elsewhere – admittedly into the service sector which is a dead-end for economic development which Korea shouldn’t want].

The excuse people who pirate always use is that they weren’t going to buy the product anyway, which is undoubtedly true in some cases and undoubtedly false in others. People in Korea don’t seem to care though. I went into a computer store once to ask for a quote on a computer, and was told “we can supply whatever you want – any software... no extra cost.” I actually wanted to buy a genuine copy of Windows – and after overcoming the proprietor’s incredulity he finally laughed and said sheepishly “we don’t have any”.

I think this isn’t isolated because there was a case recently of a large supermarket chain being caught selling pirated software on netbooks, and according to official figures software piracy has reached a five-year high.

You know what really got me about my trip to a computer store? That the proprietor admitted that the one downside of the pirated copies of ‘Windows Vista’ these days is that you can’t update them, which means no security updates and all that implies. But people “don’t really care”. So there’s an ethical issue here but the bigger issue to my mind is security.

Korea’s Digital Pearl Habor

People are taking reckless chances with their online security by running pirated software, because even if you don’t get caught by some downloaded virus, your pirated version of Windows itself may include programs that spy on you, and steal your passwords and bank account details. It’s obviously occurring too because once I was called in to look at a friend’s computer that was ‘running slowly’, and it transpired to be because of the large number of spyware programs infecting the machine.

That’s a practical outcome of these security weaknesses – that to access your bank you have to go through a lot of quite complicated procedures involving digital signatures, and that sounds like it has its advantages on the principle that more security is always good, but it isn’t, because the upshot of the technical environment here is that everyone has to use inherently flawed ActiveX technology and because most people are running pirated versions of Windows which often can’t be updated, everyone designs their websites and security for Internet Explorer 6, which is very insecure.

But where this problem might really manifest itself, is in the field of cyber-warfare, which is already with us, as the attack on Nonghyup Bank earlier this year – which was blamed on North Korea – demonstrates. People often think that if war with the North happens, it’s going to start with thousands of North Korean soldiers rushing over the border, but I think it’s more likely war will begin with a massive cyber attack which, will cripple South Korea. I can see this country very quickly losing its mobile phone networks, Internet, TV, financial, GPS, power and traffic infrastructure. And even if nuclear power plants aren’t connected to the Internet as the authorities in this country claim, the same was true of Iran but foreign intelligence agencies still managed to introduce a devastating virus into that closed system.

North Korea allegedly has 30,000 ‘electronic warfare agents’ or hackers as it is, so it seems optimistic to think they aren’t going to used as part of the initial strike against this country.

So the way I see it, I feat it will be chaos before the first shot is even fired. And that’s the problem. Never mind stealing your bank details, how do you know your pirated copy of Windows doesn’t have a foreign program on it waiting to trigger as part of a cyber attack? You don’t, whether it’s ethical or not, using pirated software might turn out to be a danger to South Korea’s security, whether through war directly or just industrial espionage. Fake bags are not going to bring down society, but the thinking that accepts it, just might.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-06-15 @ ~19:30

Friday, July 08, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 33: Humour/Humor, Satire and Ire

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


In retrospect, I can’t quite believe I got to make some of these points on the radio. I love humour - I'd much rather be watching an episode of Blackadder, Community, Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory or Better Off Ted [which inexplicably nobody watched] than Saw 6. In fact I consider my life to be one long extended joke. So I wanted to talk about the subject of humour, but I also thought it would be nice if the next generation of Koreans that largely make up the Busan eFM audience could learn to lighten up. They won't of course, life in Korea is often an extremely serious, depressing and stressful experience, and anything I say on air is a drop in the ocean - an ocean in which everyone has long since drowned. But you know what? Never give up. Never surrender.


Last week I talked about how the Expat Internet is hell. But foreigners can be funny too, and not just in a strange way. This week I’m covering expat humour in Korea.

What's so funny anyway?

Humour is a very funny thing. What one person finds amusing, another may not. Between foreigners, there’s a difference between British and American humour for example – even the words are spelt differently. I feel that British humour is more deadpan, darker, sometimes meaner, and more surreal. I think American humour is different, but still funny.

Babopalooza in Busan

I think there’s a huge difference between Korean humour and Western humour though. My first experience of this here came in the form of an expat comedy called ‘Babopalooza’ here in Busan back in 2006. It became quite a big issue in the foreign community.

This is my understanding of it: essentially a group put on a theatre performance which made fun of life in Korea. The targets for the humour were Koreans and Western foreigners. But one of the potential dangers with cultural comedy, especially here I think, is that Koreans only see Koreans being made fun of. In fact one of the co-writers actually said the ‘babo’ in Babopalooza were the foreigners. Anyway, apparently the police or immigration officials came to watch, and allegedly the upshot of it all was that people lost their jobs and had to leave Korea, while others had problems with visa renewals. So really, it was a comedy with a sad ending.

Babopalooza happened six weeks after I came to Korea for the first time. I appreciate that public comedy performances are really tough to pull off, but the reaction to the show made me think that however nicely people were treating me, beneath the surface this country might not be a very friendly place.

I’ve seen Korean performers on TV putting on ‘black faces’ [or masks] and pretending to be black or Africans. I guess that’s – apparently – OK here [it’s not], but you can’t do that in England because it would be racist. By our standards, that’s quite nasty – not funny at all – but it’s acceptable here, whereas Babopalooza was unacceptable.

So these examples made me think that Koreans can make fun of foreigners, but foreigners making fun of Koreans is unacceptable. I’m afraid that doesn’t create a good image of Korea or Koreans [some foreigners also lean towards the view that foreigners in Korea should keep their mouths shut and just do their jobs].

Anyway, while I gather there was a lot of creative energy here in Busan before Babopalooza, after what happened – for a while – foreigners were afraid to do any public performances. Busan wants to have art and culture to create a multicultural city, but it makes me think that what they want is the Korean version of multiculturalism, where everyone thinks like a Korean. [Bazinga!]

The Line

I don’t think Babopalooza went too far, but I’m not going to pretend that other expats haven’t crossed the line. Last year a foreigner started a blog [Blackout Korea] which others perhaps contributed to as well, that consisted of pictures of drunk, unconscious Koreans. I can see how that might seem funny for a couple of moments, but beyond that I don’t find it funny – instead it’s a rather sad reflection on all the pressures in Korean society which causes this.

Some drugs (like alcohol) [Korea likes to think of itself as ‘drug-free’ but that depends on your definition] are OK in moderation, but this kind of drug abuse seems a big problem in Korea, just like it is in my country – and it’s not funny there either. But obviously some foreigners found it funny, and this shows that the problem with humour is that it can easily be one-sided and insensitive, and that ultimately it can easily slip into racism. It doesn’t have to be like that though because I think there are better and genuinely funny blogs written by foreigners in Korea.

Humorous Expat Blogs... Or What Amuses Me

I’ll tell you how I feel about expat blogs here. There are the big name bloggers which everyone reads, and they’re churning out entries for their audience, but some of the lesser known blogs here such as Expat Hell and The Supplanter feature – to my mind – excellent writing which really attracts me, and they contain a lot of self-deprecating humour. I feel I make fun of myself quite often in my blog so I suppose I appreciate that style.

But then some of the expat blogs are written explicitly not as personal experiences of life in Korea, but more for the purpose of satire, which I find especially interesting.


The satirical blogs are different to the other expat blogs, which tend to cover daily life. Wikipedia defines satire as a format in which “vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.”

So people can find satire uncomfortable, and that was the problem with Babopalooza. In fact, the Wikipedia page on satire even mentions something that happened here in Korea to the foreign journalist Michael Breen, who wrote a satirical article in The Korea Times, which resulted in him being sued for $1 million by the chaebol he satirised [Samsung]. Mike Breen said the prosecutor in his case didn’t get his satirical article, telling him “It’s not funny if it’s not true.” [comment 24].

I gathered that apparently there’s no tradition of written satire in Korea, so writing satirical material can be a dangerous activity in Korea. And yet I think it’s important in today’s world because so many people are ignorant of the news. In fact, in America surveys show that presenters such as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are the only way some people actually know what’s going on – even if it’s dressed up as satire.

The Yangpa, Dokdo Is Ours, and The Dokdo Times

I think the first satirical blog in Korea was The Yangpa, which presumably was inspired by the famous American satire site, The Onion. The Yangpa blog started before I came to Korea, and people talked about it back then but I must admit I rarely read it. The problem for me was highlighted by one early entry about a pop singer/actress who was guilty of plagiarism with her degree. When I first came here I didn’t understand enough about Korea to know who this was or why plagiarism was a good satirical subject, so the humour was lost on me. I think this illustrates why satire requires knowledge.

The Yangpa ended in 2008, then a site started called ‘Dokdo Is Ours’, and when the writer ended that last year, another new site started, this time called ‘The Dokdo Times’, which is essentially written in the style of a fake Korean newspaper. What I like about these sites is that they aren’t just aimed at satirising one group of people – but everyone, including foreigners. For example, the most popular ‘story’ on The Dokdo Times’ site is about a Korean woman who married a foreigner and then realised he’s actually an idiot. I think that’s something both Koreans and foreigners can relate to.

But What Do They Think?

I’m not sure what Koreans really make of this foreign humour. Despite what Mike Breen said about the prosecutor in his case, I believe from what I've read that some Koreans in Korea really find some of these satirical sites funny. [And at least one Korean comedian may be out there pushing the envelope as well]. They are a test of English as well – if you understand humour written in another language then you’ve really done well. Even when I’ve learnt Korean, I think it might still be some time before I understand Korean satire, assuming that exists.

‘Babopalooza’ was judged ‘not funny’ by the authorities, and sometimes Koreans get very angry at some foreign humour – either they don’t get it or the humour wasn’t funny in the first places and it just ended up being offensive. Comedy and satire can be very difficult things to pull off, especially in a foreign country.

Learning About Korea Through Humour

I’d say that I’m learning about Korea through humour. I read the Korean news but it’s easy to miss things or not really think about them deeply. For example, one of these recent satirical ‘news articles’ from The Dokdo Times detailed how people with three or more drunk driving convictions would be banned from working as bus and taxi drivers. It sounds like a joke but it’s actually really true, which to me is a serious issue which people should be thinking about more. Maybe if people did, the society we live in could become a better, more tolerant and less hypocritical place [or it might at least become safer].

Can Satire Change Attitudes in Korea?

I don’t know if satire can change attitudes in Korea though. Can anything change Korea? Recently I read that that Korea is the fifth ‘most socially tight’ country in the world [actually, the fifth among 33 countries surveyed, not that the Chosun Ilbo ever let a detail like that get in the way of a good headline], meaning there is a great deal of conformity here, and pressure to conform. Satire represents the opposite of conformity in many ways, because it points out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies in society. There’s nothing wrong with conforming if that’s what you want to do, but humour and satire are good ways of encouraging you to think for yourself too.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-06-08 @ ~19:30

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Honey Pot

In my mind the angry husband eventually accused his wife of caring more about her plants than she did about him, and this is the reason he chose to start dropping them, one by one, out of the window into the car park ten floors below.

As heavy ceramic pots of the sort favoured for Korean balconies, complete with large exotic plants, surreally dropped down the side of our apartment building, the ageing building janitor was called in to negotiate for the safety of the remaining foliage, even if the marriage at this point was beyond saving.

It’s not always a given that people are going to listen to their elders in this country any more, but thirty minutes later, the man was sheepishly picking up shattered ceramic fragments and traumatised plants amongst the thin layer of earth that now covered part of our apartment block's car park.

Stress is a huge problem in Korea.