Wednesday, 13 June 2012

SOJU - Hail to The King!


Don't look into her eyes
Wow. What a drink. If you came to Korea and didn’t experience this national ‘rice-wine’ treasure, then, clearly, you didn’t actually go to Korea, did you. For anyone living here, Soju is part of daily life: whether you are in a restaurant, bar, in a park, outside a convenient store, up a mountain, at ANY time of day, you will likely see one of these distinctive green bottles, that help define the country’s gastronomic culture, being slowly emptied into some happy individual.

And recently, with the publication of Drinks International’s latest figures, Jinro’s brand of Soju has taken its place on the global piss-head scene, coming in at NUMBER 1 in a list of the most-drunk spirits in the world, beating the likes of globally famous drinks such as Smirnoff Vodka and Johnny Walkers Whiskey, by an absolute country mile. I was genuinely shocked by the figures I saw (first brought to my attention by the excellent KoreaBANG blog), so did a bit of amateur net-research into it all…

What’s really weird is that Soju is not remotely famous in other parts of the world, yet its popularity is huge, and localized. A staggering 552 million litres of Jinro Soju were sold last year alone (as well as a mere 215million litres by its lesser-rival Lotte), and 90 percent of all Soju is consumed within Korea itself. I’d never even heard of it before I came here.

Here are the stats according to Drinks International’s recent data

1 Jinro Jinro - Soju 61.38 million*
2 Smirnoff Diageo - Vodka 24.70 million
3 Lotte Liquor Lotte Liquor - Soju 23.90 million
4 Emperador Alliance Global Group - Brandy 20.10 million
5 Bacardi Bacardi - Rum 19.56 million
(*9 litre cases)
So if you add together all the Soju sales, it still eclipses the other brands’ sales combined! Madness.

So what’s the secret of Soju’s success? I could probably write a PhD thesis on the matter, but for your benefit (I know that, reading this, you’ll be gagging for a drink soon…), I’ll condense it down to three points.

PRICE

Don't-you-understand-the-meaning-of-NO-ju
My housemate, Dan, is an English Teacher at a University in Suwon, and he recently asked his students what their favourite drink was. No prizes for guessing that ‘SOJU!’ was their uniform answer. He asked them why and they said “it’s the cheapest way to get drunk”. No shit. A 375 ml bottle of Soju will cost less than (the equivalent of) 2 US dollars from a convenience store, and at just under 20% alcohol, one bottle to yourself will get you merry.

(I’m sorry to inform my readers in the UK that a bottle of Soju from a Korean restaurant in London might set you back close to ten quid! In Korea, such a price would surely lead to revolution within hours.)


HISTORY
Soju has been brewed in Korea since around the 1300s, and was, until the 20th century, something of a cottage industry, with millions of Koreans making homebrewed Soju from locally produced rice, and flavouring it with different fruits such as cherries or plums, so that each batch could be totally different, depending on who made it and where. 

However, during the Japanese occupation (starting around 1910), Soju was viewed, rightly, by the Japanese as an important part of Korean indigenous culture. As part of a wider attempt to undermine Korea’s national identity, homebrewed production was all but eliminated, and there was an effort to encourage Koreans to drink other forms of alcohol such as Sake and beer.

In spite of this, Soju’s appeal endured long after the Japanese were kicked out in 1945, but sadly, the diversity of flavours, and the art of homebrewing Soju was lost forever. Very few Koreans, especially in the cities, have any clue how to make it anymore. Now, like so many things, production has been consolidated by a few very large corporations, especially the aforementioned chart-toppers Jinro and Lotte.

However, as a nod to the old days, you will often see Koreans shaking a bottle of Soju and tapping the bottom of a bottle (usually with their elbow) before pouring it. This used to be an essential way of stirring up the sediment at the bottom of the old home-brewed stuff. Now, with it being mass-produced to strict guidelines in large factories, this technique is completely unnecessary, but still, if you want to ‘act native’, do the shakey-tappy thing in front of a Korean, for instant kudos.

CULTURE

Koreans are social drinkers, and they like to eat while they drink. Soju fits this drinking culture of Korea perfectly. 

First of all, unless you really are a Class A alcoholic, you wouldn’t drink a bottle of Soju alone. It is intended to be shared, and there is a whole lot of etiquette surrounding the way it should be poured (you should never pour your own, you should always refill empty classes, being just two elements of the rather arcane ‘rules’).

Also, it’s not like a glass of ale or a vintage wine. I mean, it doesn’t exactly taste great. Part of the fun is knocking back a few shots with your friends. Before you know it, you’ll be sucked in by thinking “well, it’s not a REAL spirit like Vodka, I can handle a few more of these babies”. Oblivion ensues… Such is the insidious ‘charm’ of the stuff.

Also, Koreans like to stretch out the drinking process by eating Anjou (drinking snacks) while they drink. This could be anything from fried chicken to a pajeon (a kind of Korean pancake), some Ojingo (dried squid) or one of a thousand other dishes they serve, to make the Soju more palatable.

The idea of an English-style pub makes little sense to Koreans. Why would anyone want to just drink beer for hours on end? The idea of making yourself feel full and bloated, with only crisps to eat, just doesn’t add up to a Korean soju-lover. And as much as I love and miss pubs back home, there is a lot to be said for the way Koreans do it, and Soju is a key part of all that.

Hangover? What hangover? Get to work!
Let’s forget, for a moment: the nasty hangovers the stuff can give you (hey – they have hangover-cure drinks for that here!), its lack of a real flavour (have a bit of squid mate), or the way it obliterates the memory so adeptly that you can forget you’ve drank four bottles already and so demand another bottle (come on - that’s a clever drink). 

Rather, let’s appreciate the positives of a drink which is cheap, fun and sociable, and has enabled Korea to be a nation of admirably keen drinkers. Perhaps that’s why the average Korean man can drink 90 bottles of Soju a year, and why Soju is officially Number One - the King of Spirits.



Anyway, that’s your lot, I’ve got to go to the shop for some, er… milk.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Death of Serendipity

What websites do you use every day? Here are the top ten most-used websites in the world right now (May 21st 2012), according to mostpopularwebsites.net :

1.       Google.com
2.       Facebook.com
3.       Youtube.com
4.       Yahoo.com
5.       Baidu.com

My regular top five would probably be:
1.     Yahoo Mail
2.       Facebook
3.       The Guardian
4.       BBC News
5.       NME.com


My top 5 websites rarely change. I might visit other sites if I am planning a trip, or if I want to buy something, or research something in particular. But most days, I go to the same sites (handily book-marked on my browser), and I’m sure most people do exactly the same. This concerns me. I am struck by how the range of places we get our information from seems to be shrinking.
'Surfing' in 1996
What ever happened to ‘surfing the web’? – that seems so nineties now, using AltaVista or AskJeeves to look for information from random (often ugly) websites I’d never heard before, and might use only once. It did feel like I was a surfer, a stumbler, a wanderer. Now, as users become more savvy and content is herded into a smaller range of sites, we don’t surf the web as much as do the rounds. We aren’t intrepid, curious explorers; we are loyal and predictable regulars.

So what, you might say. Isn’t it a sign of the web’s maturity that we know exactly where to find what we want? The problem is that our consumer ‘needs’ are now understood and satisfied so exactly, so accurately, that the joy of serendipity, of ‘stumbling across’ something genuinely new, challenging and exciting, is dying a slow death.

This has always been the case, to an extent. People have watched particular TV channels, or read particular newspapers, because they reinforce their political, social and economic worldviews. As someone with left-of-centre political views, I don’t read The Mail because it makes me angry. The same can be said of my Thatcher-loving father, who would, at even the quickest glance at the ‘socialist’ Daily Mirror’s front page, turn an ironic shade of red.

I’m not talking about changing people’s political views (although, in a lot of my family’s cases, the chance would be a very fine thing). But even within ‘our own’ particular newspaper, there is something about the print format which makes it far easier to ‘come across’ articles which we probably wouldn’t choose to click on if we to use a web-based version. 

I remember flicking through my copy of The Guardian when I worked at a University in Leeds (and could get a discounted student copy), and on my way to the columns - where I could read George Monbiot or Polly Toynbee or someone else who would eloquently reaffirm my pre-existing beliefs... kapow! blessed serendipity could strike!
Well done if you avoided this picture

I might come across the World News section, and find myself reading about, say, war in Sri Lanka, political upheaval in Sub-saharan Africa, or drought in Australia – things I might not, in all honesty (despite my claims to being an internationalist humanitarian), choose to look at. But reading about such stories enriched my understanding of the world, and made me realize that there were more important things going on than, say, how David Cameron reacted when he saw Chelsea win the Champions League final on TV (in case you were wondering, he… cheered).


Now, things are different. I have my Guardian app on my smartphone, specially personalized/filtered to give me the stories ‘I want’, without all that inconvenient turning of pages. AND it’s free, and fast, and it makes me fit in with my peers on the subway. Progress!

Living in Korea, the feeling of having my content filtered is even more stark. I can’t watch UK TV, so I can’t channel-hop, or check how different TV channels report the news differently. I also can’t flick through the headlines of different newspapers in my local corner shop.

Of course, circumventing The Media, there is still good old word-of-mouth, and facebook does serve a very useful purpose in allowing friends to share opinions, links, articles and videos. But, generally, we associate online with people who have similar opinions, read the same things, like the same music.

Think: how many people do you communicate with online that you fundamentally have nothing in common with (relatives don’t count)? Unless you are one of life’s few natural conflict-seekers (AKA: a shit-stirrer), the answer is probably Zero. And if you are a shit-stirrer, you’d better be a funny one, or you won’t keep your facebook ‘friends’ for long.

We all have our own little patches of the web, divided up by invisible boundaries of class, language and political outlooks, and when people stray from their ‘cyber territory’, things can get rather heated, to say the least. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the comments section whenever a Tory writes an article for the Guardian.

Of course, we are all independent people. We have the freedom to look on any website we want, don’t we? Well, make a note of your top 5 websites. See if they change in the next month. Do you use stumbleupon.com more than once? Me neither.

"Excellent" - Roger Tyers
People are generally lazy and will stick to their default mode (incidentally, this a phenomenon well explained by the excellent book ‘Nudge’ which I recently finished reading). The problem, as I see it, is that technology is catering only too well to this human tendency for laziness, and is in danger of making people even less open and receptive to new influences than before.

The internet provides the opportunity for access to so many different voices, but now, with smartphones and apps, we don’t even need to open a browser. App’s provide us with conveniently-selected content so we don’t have to search for ourselves.

Corporations have always controlled the Media, often with less-than-benign financial or political motives, yet at least the format of (pre-on demand) TV, radio, newspapers and libraries meant you had a chance of stumbling across something new, something which might make you think about a subject, a place, or people who you never considered before, and might, just might challenge or change your beliefs.

As radio, newspapers, TV stations, and libraries see their markets decline steadily, and the internet becomes increasingly automated and individualized, where is the space for serendipity now? Don’t get me wrong, this is not a time for nostalgia for the past, but this a time to recognize that in the future, we will have to be more active users of our Media, lest we become even more spoon-fed, even  less critical consumers than ever before.

Add caption
Why does this matter? I would argue that in our complex, globalised and ‘post-ideological’ societies, there is even more need for people to move outside of the old left-wing/right-wing, socialist/conservative dichotomy which has dominated the Media and public discourse for the last century.

Simply, there are many pressing issues which cannot be solved by retreating to our ideological comfort zones – comfort zones which the Media help perpetuate. Should we intervene militarily to help the insurgents in Syria? Should we use nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions? How should we reduce government deficits without crippling our economies? How can we prevent another banking crisis without without hobbling the banks? These are questions for which we need to be as open-minded and well-informed as possible, and for which the pre-packaged ideologies of Socialism, Liberalism or Conservatism offer few obvious solutions.

I am concerned that the modern media and modern technology is making people even more politically and socially polarized than ever before, just when the need for consensus and collective thinking in the face of huge global challenges has perhaps never been greater. A little serendipity could go a long way.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

North Korea - why China ain't gonna rock the boat.


I write as the Western World wags its finger at Kim Jeong Eun and co for attempting to fire a rocket into orbit, which they claim was to celebrate the 100 years anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Although the rocket launch was a failure, the fact that North Korea could even attempt it, despite universal international condemnation, shows just how little traction anyone has over Pyongyang.
Looks nice. Didn't work though.


Coincidentally, last week I attended a talk by esteemed Russian academic Andrei Lankov on the topic of “What does China want in North Korea, and what can be done about it?”. So it seems a fitting time for me to say a few words about how these different events and actors relate to one another, and especially why China behaves as it does to the DPRK – seemingly, letting it get away with murder, both figuratively and literally.

Andrei Lankov is a Russian professor who has studied in Russia and North Korea.  He can speak Korean, English and his native Russian, and I think he can speak some Chinese too. He has some high-level diplomatic contacts in several governments in the region, and has about half a dozen books published to his name. The guy knows his stuff. His views on China were well-informed and illustrated with reference to history, to recent conversations he’s had with well-placed government sources in Beijing and Seoul, as well as non-governmental sources in North Korea.

I will be plagiarizing Lankov extensively here. If you take an interest, I suggest you read his books, or at the very least, check out his columns for the Korea Times.

China seems to be the only country with any kind of influence over North Korea, yet they seem unable or unwilling to really effect any change on their ally. Whereas, a generation ago, perhaps, this could be explained by Cold War strategic alliances, or an ideological bond based on a shared commitment to ‘communism’, these arguments now both seem obsolete – the Cold War is over, and China’s market economy seems a world apart from anything resembling Pyongyang’s version (or, for that matter, any version) of ‘Marxism’.

Crucially, Lankov argues that China’s influence over NK is often vastly overstated by the western media. In reality, NK often ignores China’s advice, and the relationship between the two countries is cordial but underscored with deep mistrust. Kim Il Sung’s ideology of ‘Juche’ is one of self-sufficiency and independence  - although one could convincingly argue that economic stagnation, famine, and a reliance on food aid and have showed that to be an utter failure - NK is suspicious of China and keen not to become its satellite or puppet. 

Kim Jong Il is overjoyed to meet China's Wen Jiabao. (2009)
 
So China can’t do much about North Korea, and, even if it could, it wouldn’t. Why? Well, Lankov argues that China’s attitude can be understood, not in terms of ideology, or even economic links, but in terms of strategic aims, which he describes as follows.

As Lankov put it, China has three key aims regarding North Korea:

  1. Stability on the Korean peninsula
  2. A divided peninsula
  3. A non-nuclear peninsula
These aims are hierarchical: Aim 1 – stability, is the paramount aim, and China will sacrifice the other aims to maintain a stable Korean neighbour.  Likewise, China will sacrifice Aim 3, if it means Aims 2 and 1 can be maintained.

Look at the aims in reverse order, and things start to make a little more sense.
why China is interested in accessing the Korean East Coast
 Aim 3 – a non-nuclear peninsula - is important to China because China doesn’t trust the NK military with nuclear weapons, and, moreover, China wants to maintain its privileged position in the ‘Nuclear Club’, as one of only half a dozen nuclear states in the world. Also, China fears that if (or rather, when) the NK regime falls, nuclear materials could fall into the wrong hands.

However, if NK does become a nuclear-armed state (as looks increasingly likely), China would reluctantly accept that, if it meant that aims 1 and 2 were assured.

Aim 2: a divided peninsula - is important to China because China doesn’t want South Korean (and, more importantly, US) armed forces, near its border. North Korea is a handy buffer zone against its rival superpower, America.

Also, China gets some strategic advantages from the existence of North Korea, like access to its eastern coast, which is helpful for Chinese sea- exports (which otherwise have to travel a very long way – see the map). If Korea became reunified, China could not be assured of such access by a united Korea controlled from Seoul, rather than by its allies in Pyongyang.

But the main Aim, Aim 1 – stability on the peninsula, is China’s over-riding concern. However much China may be embarrassed by the belligerent actions of Pyongyang, it does not want to risk the total meltdown of the regime, fearing, probably rightly, that it would precipitate violence, chaos, and a flood of refugees over the Chinese border. In such a scenario, China’s Army might have to intervene. 

China does not want to intervene militarily in what might be a rather messy expedition into Korea which could be economically and politically costly, and the sight of Chinese tanks in a foreign country would be a PR disaster.

So, however much it dislikes it, China would accept a nuclear North Korea rather than risk the meltdown of the whole regime, which would lead to a united Korea and at least an interim period of instability – therefore meaning aims 1 and 2 would not be secured.

However, Lankov argues that China could accept the reunification of Korea, if a situation arose that meant it was unavoidable. If, for example, the NK regime failed, then China would probably not prevent South Korea from filling the vacuum of power, and unifying the peninsula, so as to stabilize the peninsula as soon as possible. 

This seems to echo some of the information which wikileaks has unearthed, that China (for the reasons mentioned earlier) would not want to involve its military in Korea, although they would probably seek assurances that the US military would keep a certain distance away from the China-Korea border.

Seen thus, it can be understood why China behaves as it does. It is unwilling to do anything which might endanger the Pyongyang government’s ability to survive. China could, theoretically at least, cut all trade links with NK, stop sending food aid and isolate Pyongyang politically. This could help precipitate some kind of overthrow of the Kim government. 

But, firstly, China is not in the business of regime change (as can be seen by their complete reluctance to get involved in the Arab Spring), and in the case of Korea, it wants to maintain its strategic aims, as outlined above. The status quo might not be perfect, but the alternatives, for China at least, are worse.

If change is to happen in North Korea, it is likely to come from within rather than be imposed from without.

But, more on that....later.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Election fever and the National Assembly



Is election fever gripping Korea? As a foreigner, as with so many things here, it’s hard to say. One thing is certain: there is a general election coming this month, and the seats of the National Assembly are up for grabs. It looks likely that the ruling Grand National Party will lose their current majority to the new United Democratic party, which seems set to benefit from general disillusionment with President Lee Myeung Bak’s elitist policies, and a recent raft of stories about corruption and a lack of press freedom which have all damaged the GNP’s reputation.

On street corners and subway stations in Seoul and its satellite cities, one can see evidence of the political parties’ PR machines springing into action, some of which seem familiar to us foreigners, some certainly does not. The huge posters and billboards showing (photo-shopped?) pictures of smiling parliamentary candidates beaming down from shopping centre malls are certainly reminiscent of UK election campaigns; but the teams of brightly-clothed dancing women singing songs praising their party, to the sound of K-Pop music being pumped out of portable PA systems, seem very different indeed to anything I might see back home. It seems that Koreans sell their politicians like they sell most things: using in-your-face sights and sounds to grab people’s attention.

As all this is going on, I thought it was time to go to the National Assembly building in Yeuiodo, Seoul. Being a bit of politics geek, I’ve been to a few Parliament buildings in my time - the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Australian Parliament in Canberra, the British Parliament in London – and thought I should see what it looks like in the Korean equivalent, to witness the the place which embodies the 'prize' for this month's election candidates.
 
The building is impressive and anyone who’s crossed the Han River in Seoul will certainly recognize the Roman-style pillars and green dome which house the country’s political nerve centre. As you’d expect, it’s on a prime piece of real estate: located riverside, right next to the towering skyscrapers of Seoul’s main business and finance district on the semi-island of Yeouido.

The whole Yeouido district has a strange sense of space, of planning, of calm purposefulness, which one doesn’t see often in the crammed streets of Seoul. Walking up to the National Assembly building itself, from its new, super-clean subway station along its tree-lined  front-lawn, one does feel impressed by the imposing architecture and unabashed sense of power and privilege. And inside too, it’s not a disappointment: marble floors and red carpets, shining statues and canvas paintings - they’ve done a good job to realize the grand ambitions of Park Chung-hee (the President who ordered the building of this place) to replace its Japanese-built predecessor with a parliament building Koreans can be proud of.

the dome is meant to signify...er.. something or other
There are two main chambers, but only one of them is used. The other is reserved for North Korea’s politicians: should reunification ever happen, they’re ready! The main chamber looks similar to the US Congress or the European Parliament: a semi-circular design with seats facing the Speak in the centre of the room. Each politician has their own touch-screen computer at their desk so they can vote on bills electronically. (Technologically miles ahead of the Westminster system where MPs still have to file into division lobbies and use actual pieces of paper to vote.)

The main chamber
The semi-circle design is supposed to engender a non-aggressive style of discussion, as opposed to the face-to-face design of the House of Commons in London. However, Korean politics is renowned for getting rather hot-headed at times, and there have been numerous occasions when the National Assembly has been the site of violence and chaos. With punches thrown, doors barricaded, and fire extinguishers and sledgehammers used as weapons, it makes the ya-boo of Westminster seem positively tame.


With our guide Mr. Shin in the Visitor Centre.
Our tour of the main building was brief but interesting. We also saw the Visitor Centre, where a very friendly and helpful Mr. Shin (who spoke great English) told us some more trivia about the Assembly’s history and how it all worked. There are also some exhibits about the country’s political past and there’s a mock-up of the President’s own desk, where for a few minutes you can fulfil all your fantasies of POWER!!!! ( and I have plenty of them).


El Pres.

The National Assembly is the perfect place to visit to get a feel for how Korean politics works, and (for non-politics geeks) to experience a beautiful piece of living, working architecture at first-hand. 

It certainly would be a nice building to call your ‘workplace’ - you can see why, in the run-up to this month’s elections, so many would-be Korean Politicians will be fighting (and singing, and dancing) so hard to get a job in there.




The National Assembly is free to visit, but you will need to book at least 3 days ahead. A tour of the main building and visitor centre shouldn't take you more than 2 hours. Go to http://korea.assembly.go.kr/com/guide_01.jsp for more information. Tours can be in Korean or English upon request.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Nick Clegg's autobiography - Reserve Your copy now.

Remember this? The first Prime Ministerial Debate on UK TV, back in April 2010. It is rather strange to watch it now with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what has happened since in UK politics, and to the respective careers of Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and particularly, Nick Clegg.

In the clip, first up is a characteristically gruff and serious-looking Brown, with some stark warnings about the consequences of withdrawing government money from the economy and endangering the recovery. Next, Cameron tells the audience not to be scared about voting Conservative, and that his party has some new and exciting plans for us, without going into much detail of these plans (probably so as not to scare us!), and tells us to believe in ‘hope, not fear’. Stirring stuff Dave. Then comes Clegg, to finish with some well-rehearsed stuff about how we should try something ‘new’ and ‘fair’ by voting for the Liberal Democrats.

In Britain, we all remember what happened next…. ‘Cleggmania’ took hold with sudden Lib Dem poll ratings in the 30s, and for a few weeks it seemed like our 70-year old two-party system was in serious doubt. Then the election came, no-one won a majority, and the lib dems’s much-hyped ‘breakthrough’ never materialised. The country then watched in bemusement as about a dozen politicians decided the fate of our next government, locked in endless discussions behind the closed doors of Whitehall offices, as we looked on through Nick Robinson’s BBC camera lense, trying to second-guess the outcome.

Then, after five days of a strange but fascinating kind of political limbo, came the sight of Gordon Brown throwing in the towel and wandering down Downing Street, wife and kids in tow, towards political retirement. Then, before you could say ‘regime change’, Cameron was in Number 10 and welcoming Nick Clegg as his deputy in the first coalition government for decades. Strange days indeed.