25 November 2008

2MB, Obama, and More

Pretty interesting day today, though I spent much of the time traveling - and dozing off on buses and in the subway, due to the exhaustion resulting from days of too much driving/blogging and too little sleeping. For starters, it now costs me 1,500 won and 90 minutes, instead of 1,000 won and 30 minutes, to commute one way to my meditation, due to the vastly increased distance. I'll still take it over driving any day - driving, thanks to the traffic, isn't all that much faster, and the fuel cost alone is more than the fare.

Only one photo today, but pretty interesting nevertheless.

I walked across a caricature booth, and came upon this drawing. It portrays 2MB as a green frog. A green frog has negative connotations in Korean culture, often referring to someone who always does the exact opposite of what s/he is told to do. And of course, there is also the old saying "frog in a well" to refer to a myopic person, though in this picture, 2MB is not sitting inside a well.

A strange feature of Korean personal names is that there are only a few hundred possible family names, with the top three (Kim, Lee, Park) accounting for half of the population, and the top twenty accounting for at least 90%. On the other hand, given names have far more possibilities; even though computerization demands that the Chinese characters to be legally used in a given name can only be from a pool of a few thousand, it can still yield millions of possibilities. It's often necessary to consult a professional when choosing good characters for one's name, whether it's for a new baby or for an adult changing a horrible-sounding name. For some (especially women), purely Korean names may also be used, adding even more possibilities.

For politicians, this means one thing. Politicians with common surnames will often be referred to by the English initials of their given names. This trend took hold in the 1980s, thanks to the longtime presence of the Three Kims. The Three Kims, who are all very old now and definitely retired from active politics, were as follows:
  • Kim Young-sam, a right-wing pro-democracy activist who served as President from 1993 to 1998, and was the first civilian President in decades. He is known as YS.
  • Kim Dae-jung, a left-wing pro-democracy activist who worked with and against YS, and served as the nation's first leftist President from 1998 to 2003. He is known as DJ.
  • Kim Jong-pil, a far-right politician who never served as President, but spent lots of time as Prime Minister (and also headed the KCIA and masterminded the Moonie expansion to the US), and certainly was a major force to be reckoned with. He is known as JP.
On the other hand, politicians with rarer surnames, such as Roh (as in Roh Tae-woo and Roh Moo-hyun), were usually referred to by their full names.

Lee (also written as Rhee or Yi, and pronounced as Yi in South Korea and Ri in North Korea) is very commonplace, so extending this convention, Lee Myung-bak, the current President, is known as MB. The MB moniker is widely used by supporters and critics alike. A common variation of this, however, is 2MB, which uses the number 2 to refer to the surname (2 is pronounced Yi), and connotes that Lee has only two megabytes of brain power. The 2MB moniker is used exclusively by critics, and I prefer to use 2MB myself.

I picked up some 2MB-related stuff today. First, news feeds are telling me that after finishing his Peru tour, 2MB stopped in Los Angeles for an evening with local Korean-American leaders, telling them that South Korea's economy will be back on track in 3 years. Los Angeles has tons of ethnic Koreans, to a point where just about every South Korean now knows of a relative or a friend in Los Angeles (and South Korean tour operators don't sell packages to Los Angeles, asking travelers to simply bum their local relatives/friends for rides and sightseeing); they overwhelmingly support the 2MB agenda and the far-right McCarthyism, and were the final driving force in California's Proposition 8 which enjoyed significant 2MB funding. The scary thing is that Los Angeles is not the worst; New York City's smaller, but nevertheless very large, Korean-American community is even more pro-2MB and reactionary, and as a result, 2MB's first US stop as South Korea's President took place in New York.

The far-right mouthpiece Chosun Ilbo also speculates about the possibility of an alliance between 2MB and Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the late military dictator Park Chung-hee; people indeed wonder why these former rivals can't come together, after seeing a new spirit of cooperation between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Honestly, I was insulted when 2MB compared himself to Obama, and any thought of Park and Hillary having any similarities, other than being women, is even more insulting, because Park and Hillary couldn't be any more different in ideology. Park should be compared to Sarah Palin instead, though Park has never been married, a rarity for any South Korean woman of her power and stature.

Speaking of Barack Obama, I spent some time at a sizable bookstore, ending up with two books full of Obama speeches and quotes. The first was Change We Can Believe In, and the second was a large selection of Obama quotes showcasing his beliefs and policy plans. Both books were completely bilingual, and primarily intended for Koreans studying English and contemporary American society; I picked them up, for a look at how the Koreans translate and interpret the Obama agenda. Some concepts that may be unfamiliar offer a bit of supplemental explanation; for example, few Koreans recognize the acronym LGBT, but when it's written out as "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender" and translated into their Korean equivalents, it becomes crystal clear. Of course, there were plenty of other Obama books around, such as Audacity of Hope, in Korean only, but I decided to skip them, as I want to read them in the original English when I return home. There also were plenty of other books, including a Howard Zinn book named A History of the United States which re-interprets history from an anti-imperialist, anti-militarist, pro-masses perspective.

Other developments on the Korean peninsula today include North Korea confirming its plans to seal the border. Starting December 1st, sightseeing tours to Kaesong will cease, and so will the daily freight train service there. All South Koreans in North Korea will be expelled. The only exceptions will be bare essential personnel and motor vehicle traffic required to continue operation of the Kaesong Industrial Park, which for now will remain operational (the North is not stupid - it needs the money). North Korea does emphasize that this is only a "first-stage" action, and further adverse actions may follow if 2MB and the North Korean defectors to South Korea continue to "provoke" the North. (The latter are certainly vowing to continue to send leaflet-filled balloons north, provoking the Communists further, even against the advice of the 2MB government.) I read the details from both the center-right Dong-A Ilbo and the center-left Hankyoreh; the latter opined that "ten years of inter-Korean cooperation efforts go up in smoke." 2MB responds by saying that North Korea's plans to deal only with the US while ignoring South Korea will not succeed. The right-wing parties are vowing to never give in to the latest "northern blackmail," while the left-wing parties ask for a critical look at 2MB's northern policy. In the meantime, Hyundai Asan, which was the main concessionaire in inter-Korean exchanges and operated all the tours to Kaesong and the Diamond Mountains, is certainly hurting very badly; the suspension of the Diamond Mountains tour program, now in its fifth month after ten successful years, has already cost 800 billion won (over half a billion US dollars at today's exchange rate), and the newest North Korean measures will cut the company's revenues by at least two thirds.