26 November 2008

Seongnam and Seoul: A few sights

I've been very tired, and spent most of the day sleeping. I tried to get out to Seoul's Jamsil district, not that far away from Seongnam, for some ice skating and shopping - but I was so tired that I only did minor shopping before coming right back for more sleep. I captured four photos in the meantime.

Learning English is a major national obsession in South Korea. A good command English is believed to put one at a huge advantage when applying for jobs, as it's exceedingly difficult for the young to get a decent-paying job these days. Moreover, even the government encourages people to study English - going as far as establishing English-only zones - in hopes of improving national competitiveness.

Much of this obsession comes from the fact that English-language education in South Korea has traditionally consisted of little more than rote memorization of strict grammar rules. After all, very few teachers were able to speak any real English, so rote memorization to fill the time and improve test scores was the only thing they could teach. That has resulted in successive generations of Koreans who cannot speak any real English, even after years of intensive, compulsory study. It's changing for the better, however, as South Korea, now with money, is able to lure in native speakers from overseas.

This neighborhood English academy in Seongnam apparently teaches English with a Canadian twist, employing Canadians. It is targeted to children between 4 and 11 years old. Officially, English becomes a required academic subject in seventh grade, but most parents, in the hyper-competitive South Korean society, will never wait that long for their children to get started. The sooner English education starts, the better - even if it is so early that the child's ability to speak Korean is itself in jeopardy.

I do have to say that thanks to the Internet, the younger generation of South Koreans have a good command of written English, helped by all their grammar drills. Spoken English is another matter, however. Nevertheless, they are better at English than the Korean-American coworkers at my office.

Here is Seongnam's Peugeot showroom. I see almost the entire Peugeot range here. The blue car in front is the 207 convertible, possibly the best-looking car on South Korean roads today, and certainly a popular, if somewhat pricey, choice. The showroom is promoting the diesel-powered 308, which gets almost 16 kilometers per liter. In any case, I am impressed with the styling of these cars - certainly sleeker and sexier than any South Korean domestic, or anything from Japan, US, and Germany for that matter. (However, Renault-Samsung may start featuring similar sleek designs soon, as its current Nissan-designed models are set to be replaced with Renault's own designs. And I consider Renaults to be the best-looking cars in Europe.) Of course, the French are NOT good at building reliable, lasting cars - so beauty is only skin deep.

In South Korea, independently-owned dealerships with in-house stock of vehicles are absolutely unheard of; there is simply no land for a large US-style dealer lot. If I want to buy a car, I need to walk into a showroom like this, specify what I want, sign the papers, then have the salespeople bring me the car from a centralized stock - or put in the order for production. Showrooms are run directly by manufacturers and/or authorized importers.

Service, especially warranty service, is handled by a separate network of manufacturer-owned or franchised repair shops for domestic vehicles, and by the showroom service department for imports. Needless to say, getting an import serviced outside major cities can be a major challenge; many import makes only run five or so sales/service centers nationwide (mostly in Seoul), and even the most popular, such as BMW and Lexus, don't run more than a dozen. Independent repair shops, doing anything from just oil changes to comprehensive repairs, also exist, of course - but don't expect them to be able to fix your BMW.

I am in Jamsil. I am coming across this sweepstakes banner. Kyobo Insurance Company, which sells auto insurance with the French multinational AXA, wants me to call for a quote, or go to its website and answer a questionnaire. I may win one of two Hyundai Genesises - the sedan or the coupe. I may also win some gift certificates, and if I go online, I will get a 10,000-won discount for my next oil change just for responding.

Of course, I have to ask the following two questions:
  • Can a nonresident foreigner (me) even qualify? (I guess not - I'm pretty sure I'll need an Alien Registration Number at least, which requires a long-term visa.)
  • If I win the Genesis, can I take it home? (Probably not - the cars are domestic market models, and even though they're probably US-legal, they are NOT specifically marked as such, so importation and registration in the US are both illegal.)
I also saw a help wanted ad for Lotte World's indoors amusement park. Two types of jobs were available, and the qualifications were very telling of the South Korean corporate establishment's continuing Confucian mindset. The jobs are as follows:
  • Park staff. You must be between 19 and 27. Both males and females may apply.
  • Support staff. You must be a married female under 45, unless you apply for kitchen help, in which case you may be up to 55.
  • Both pay 3,500 won to 4,100 won per hour, based on an 8-hour day. Over 8 hours, and night shifts, are eligible for overtime/shift differential pay of about 50%. Health insurance, pension, discounts on Lotte services, and other perks are to be provided. You must pass two interviews before being hired, trained, and put into work.
The pay rate is absolutely pathetic - even more so, given the severe depreciation of the won over the past few months. At least a part-time Costco help can get 7,900 won per hour. There has been a minimum wage law in South Korea since 1988, but the mandated minimums are unrealistically low and practically worthless. Both the South Korean corporate establishment and the Korean-American community are overwhelmingly against minimum wage laws, the latter due to their large-scale employment of garment workers in downtown Los Angeles.

Back to Seongnam, where this poster announces a candlelight vigil tomorrow night at 7PM, in the Yatap district, to oppose the wholesale privatization of public services, one of the hallmarks of the 2MB economics. 2MB, as stated before, is a strong believer in Reaganomics and the supposed efficiency of the private sector. However, there is massive opposition to privatization in South Korea, partly due to most of the private operators being cronies with close ties to government bureaucrats; in other words, the promised efficiency improvements will not come, while the privatized enterprises only become even less accountable to the taxpayers who fund them. And as public sector employees are usually unionized, the prospect of union-busting by their new private sector bosses is real - even though that's something that the economic establishment and the elderly, who tend to see labor unions as fronts for the global communist movement, would love. Various citizens' groups, including those dedicated to labor rights, improved inter-Korean relations, and stopping import of unscreened American beef, are behind this vigil.

In fact, I continue to see the elderly have very McCarthyistic conversations among themselves in the subway. The newspapers they carry are all the same - Chosun Ilbo, the far-right mouthpiece.

In any case, privatization needs to happen only after taking a good look at the US under Reagan, and the UK under Margaret Thatcher. Both nations privatized just about everything under the two leaders, and the results have been mixed at best. I do know that the rail network in the UK got worse AND more expensive, under privatization.

More on the subject of demonstrations, candlelight vigils have been the dominant trend since 2002, when two middle school girls were crushed by American tanks, the involved Americans did not even have to stand trial in South Korean courts, and enraged South Koreans took to the streets. In previous decades, anti-government and anti-American protests tended to be violent, with plenty of Molotov cocktails and police tear gas, but the new, democratic era calls for something more mature, now giving rise to the candlelight vigils. Even then, they can still turn violent, when a well-planted provocateur, either pro-government or anti-government, starts a fight. 2MB has been cracking down very hard on the organizers of such protests, even peaceful ones; meanwhile, his rule has encouraged plenty of right-wing pro-government counter-protests.

I do hope that South Korea preserves its Constitutional guarantee of free, lawful assembly and freedom of expression and conscience. 2MB is putting everything under threat. And while the US certainly had looked the other way when the military dictatorships were oppressing the South Korean people during the Cold War, I will press the Obama Administration into not continuing that tradition anymore. The sure way for America to win back the world's trust is to support real democratic movements, not to support anti-democratic regimes just because they are anti-Communist or otherwise useful. Obama knows it. America will finally be a force for good that it's always promised to be, and it will surely make a difference in South Korea as it keeps 2MB's ambitions in check.