Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with G.M.B. Akash

Many people could have lost everything in this fire if Sumon (27) had not jumped to stop the roaring flames all by himself. The site near the Buriganga River in central Dhaka has long been used as a dump for rubbish from the textile and othere industries. It only took the dropping of a cigarette butt to produce a severe fire, engulfing the whole neighborhood of shacks and makeshift homes. But Sumon immediately ran from his scrape-shop nearby, splashing water to save his livelihood and that of others. No one helped him. It is fitting to end this photographic hommage to the many “survivor“ — characters in South Asia with this picture of this courageous fighter, who valiantly took things into his own hands. Dhaka, Bangladesh

 G.M.B. Akash is one of my favourite colour photographers of all time. He has won more than 40 international awards and his work has been published around the world. Beyond that, he is the rare breed of photojournalist who cares deeply about the people he is documenting. While many commoditize their subjects, feeling that the relationship is over after they have gotten the right frame, Akash goes much further. I know from personal conversations with him that his self-published book “Survivors” was incredibly difficult to produce, and yet he used most of the profit to open small businesses for the people who appear in its pages – keeping almost nothing for himself. I don’t know many others who would have done the same thing.

I had the pleasure of meeting Akash last year in his home city of Dhaka, and found him to be an incredibly warm and open person, as well as being extremely talented. I wrote to Akash to see if he would be willing to share his knowledge with a wider audience, and he graciously agreed. We can all learn something from his compassion, his motivation, and his lack of ego. Enjoy!

Nowadays there seems to be a talented Bangladeshi photographer around every corner, but when you were starting out, what was it like to break into the market? Did you face challenges because of where you were from?

Coming from a background where there was little space for adopting a creative process created difficult circumstances for me. People around me had no idea about photojournalism. At that time parents supported you even if you wanted to be an artist, illustrator or an actor/singer. But ‘photojournalist’, this genre did not exist in the circles I was brought up in. Today one click of your mouse takes you to the sites of your favorite photographers, their recent works, and there are opportunities to get your work published. We didn’t have an internet connection or any digitalized facilities. With the only camera I had, I could hardly manage to take the pictures that I imagined. Yes, now a days the field is competitive but there are opportunities too. In my early career, the challenges were where to find inspiration, how to get a mentor, and how to live my dream. I grew up in a place where I saw massive number of sex workers, child labourers, and people living on the edges of society. At that time my friends were filling out forms for higher education to become doctors or barristers, but I had chosen my path. Everyone said I was heading for disaster. Many days I did not eat to save my pocket money for my photography. I used my tuition to buy films. Even sometime when I had no film in my camera and had no money in pocket, I never stopped clicking. I kept clicking knowing I had no film inside my camera. Because I know I had to achieve my dream. Nothing could stop me except myself, so I kept walking. And see, now I am halfway to my dream.

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You shoot all the time. I see images from you on social media almost every day. Where do you get the motivation to work so much?

When I shoot I always ask two questions to myself: why I am taking this photo? And what message do I want to convey? First and foremost, photography is my passion and secondly it is a tool to affect positive change. I shoot almost every day because I love to do it. I do not see photography as competition, nor do I thrive for status or reputation. I want to show my pictures to my audiences. I have seen many of my colleagues who hardly share their photographs and keep them all for competitions, grants, or exhibitions.  I am very clear about the fact that I take photographs to show people, to convey a message, and to make a change. Until I can spread my message, until I share stories of broken hearts, until I show how brave my subjects are, I do not bother with anything else. On my Facebook page, every day I receive messages. Some are like ‘You changed me and my thoughts, Thank you’, or ‘After seeing your photo I cried at midnight. What can I do for the brave lady?’ and sometimes hundreds of wishes and prayers. That matters to me more than any achievement. I believe that if my photographs can connect with the heart, then this is the ultimate achievement.

Why did you decide to start the First Light Institute and what do you hope it will do for photography and Bangladeshi journalism?

I founded the ‘First Light Institute of Photography’ in August, 2013. I wanted to take photography door-to-door, and heart to heart. My mission is to give quality knowledge at minimal cost to unprivileged photography students. The dream is very simple: it is ‘keeping your light alive’. First Light recently organized the event ‘Inspiring Light’, in which we brought aspiring individuals to share their unique treasures with an audience. ‘Inspiring Light’ is an event in which to exchange inspiration; where people learn, are inspired and where ideas will take shape. The event is free for everyone. We recently organized an exhibition at the nearby Narayanganj train station to make the general public aware of photography. More than 25,000 people were our viewers. At the inception of our school, we made a wish! We wished to ignite the dark-velvet realities of many lives. We are aiming to educate unprivileged children: children who are living in the streets, children who are working as child labourers, children who are dropping out from schools and children who have no access to 21st century education. In short, we want to ignite the minds of the unprivileged in many different ways. We have started providing informal education of the basic subjects. Our groups of children belong to factories, the streets, slums and villages. Besides this non-profit contribution to young children, we are charging minimal fees for photography workshops that will provide the fuel for the institute to function. Our mission is to go beyond our dreams and we believe we surely will.

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Angel in Hell

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The journalism/photojournalism industries are undergoing some huge changes. It’s hard to make money, let alone support a family. How have you managed to stand out and carve a niche for yourself?

Frankly photojournalism is not a money making field. It is very hard now and was tougher in 1996 for me when I started. My mother used to say, ‘when you will not have any penny in your pocket, your love will fly through windows.’ That love was and is photography. My father told me, ‘settle with one: money or dreams?’ I replied, ‘dream and money both’. Now I have enough to live my life and live my dream. It did not come in a blink of an eye. You need time to build your name, your reputation and to prove your devotion. If you are looking to drive a Ferrari and living in a studio duplex, photojournalism is not for you. Yes, competition in the field makes everything complex. A lot of groupism and biases are slowing down promising photographers. Often new photographers are providing images to website and magazines for free, and that is creating more problems. In this respect, I try to be honest to my profession, to my work, and to my clients. That is the simple rule I am following to a make a niche for myself. I hate to be greedy because I learnt from my photography that a family can be happy living under a plastic sheet, while another  family can be unhappy living in palace.

What do you think the future holds for you and the profession of photography?

I believe in saving for my tomorrow but not wasting my today worrying about it. By the grace of God photography has brought me much respect, affection and love. For me, photography is my past, present and future. More and more people are entering and taking photography professionally. By the next ten years competition will be triple but I truly believe it will open doors that we can’t imagine now. So cheers to the people who will bring more to the table and will ask the world to wake up.

Now that so many people want to become photographers, what advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

The first question all beginners ask me is about my camera. I say that the camera is the medium, but do not take it more seriously than your eyes. It is your third eye that will capture the image and camera will only convey them. Do not become a camera-junkie with many big varieties. The second question beginners ask me is how to earn a living. I advise to be strategic, to consider things that can bring you money – they could be part-time jobs, small assignments, friend/family party shooting etc. Think about how you can continue to live in your dreams and can survive until you reach to your goal. The third question that I often face is “my parents are against my photography/my girl friend threatened to leave me.” I answer them that the convincing power of a photographer has to be marvelous because you have to convince the people whom you want to shoot. So start doing your homework. If you cannot relate your passion to those closest to you, then how far can this passion take you?

Lastly, be honest, respect others, do not enter into groupism, work hard, travel near and far, and never underestimate your inner power.

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What new projects are you working on right now? What are you most excited about in the future?

I aspire to do many things. I am working on my next photo book and continuing to do my long-term projects. My happiness is being able to bring a smile to a face. My book ‘Survivors’ is spreading happiness among survivors’ families as I am continuing to give an opportunity to elevate their lives. More than 15 families are now happily working in businesses that I set up for them. My desire is to give more. I am currently working on my recently founded school, First Light Institute of Photography. The institute will also be an educational hub for child labourers and street children. If I had a magic kit I would abolish the tears of all sufferers. But as I do not have such a thing, I will still try to wipe off tears of a few. Besides these goals, my photography journey is never ending.

Parting Words?

Dear audiences and fellow companions: our simple work may be our greatest inspiration to become better human beings each day. By making some effort through our work in changing the world even if just a little for the better, we can find the way to love and peace. Helen Keller inspired me by saying:

‘I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do’

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North Korean Defector – Kim Choong Sung

As a counterpart to my Understanding North Korea articles, I did a few interviews with North Korean defectors. These people are  taking huge risks in talking to me, but they feel it is important to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by North Koreans.

Special thanks to M.Y. Sung, without whose translation these interviews would have been impossible.

Kim “Loyalty” Choong Sung. Defected in 2001, arrived in South Korea in 2004.

Who Are You?

I am from Ham-heung in Ham-gyeong-nam-do, a northern province in North Korea.

[For a while] life in North Korea was okay because I was a pop singer. NK-pop is like opera. I mean, North Korean pop singers learn a classical music style of singing. This is because in NK, singers should be able to sing without the help of a mic and speaker, like in the case of wartime, when no electricity would be available.

There are governmental auditions, so if one has a talent in singing, the government gives him or her the chance to receive university education.

‘Loyalty’ is not my original name. It was given to me by a missionary I met in China. ‘Loyalty’ is a word that appears frequently in the Bible. The missionary told me, “you’ve been loyal to Kim Il Sung, but now be loyal to God.”

Why did you Leave?

In other countries like Canada and South Korea, individuals can own gold, but in North Korea, they can’t. All gold belonged to Kim Jeong Il. So, if someone buys or sells gold, they are supposed to be executed. I had tried selling various things like salt, fish, and clothes, but at some point I couldn’t do it anymore because it was too hard [to make enough money]. Around that time, someone told me that I would be able to make a profit if I sell gold, though it’s dangerous. So I started selling gold, but got caught.

I got caught around the border between NK and China. And just one day before I got caught, Kim Jeong Il ordered to crack down on gold sellers and execute them. So I was about to be made an example of. I was told that I was going to be executed the next day. That night, I broke out of the jail, breaking the window that had steel bars. I broke the window, at night. The room had nothing but a window, no table, nothing. But I found an iron key ring on the window frame. With it, I broke the window. It took me 13 hours to do that.

How did You Escape?

I crossed the border with other eight people. Among them, there were three women, a mother and a daughter, and another named Young-hee (영희). Our nerves were on edge, worrying that we might get caught. We climbed mountains, walked through fields and paddies, and swamps. In that way, we walked across the border.

After I crossed the border, I lived in China for two years. During that time, I visited North Korea once, secretly. After that, I got caught again. So I have been caught twice overall. This time, I was very likely to be executed, so a missionary introduced me to a broker to help me.

While I was in China, I was living with two other North Korean defectors. A missionary was financially supporting us, but at some point he couldn’t do it anymore. We got kicked out of the house because we were not able to pay the rent. So, I parted with the two, living separately. Soon I heard that they had been arrested by the Chinese police when they had a fight with a Chinese taxi driver. I went to them and offered to [take their place in prison], so they were released. I did this believing that God would help me.

The police asked the taxi driver if he recognized me, if I was the person who had beat him. And, of course, he said he didn’t even know me. God helped me and I was released.

But after that encounter, the police asked my name and other personal information, as I didn’t have an ID card. I lied to them that I was the son of a deaconess I knew. I was attending her church, and I knew that her husband was a close friend of the head of the police station where I was arrested. A very close friend, like hanging-out-at-a-bar-together-every-night close. The police believed me and let me go.

There is a route from North Korea, to China, and then through Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and to Thailand, which is used by many North Korean defectors. Mnay finally come to South Korea via Thailand. But when I reached Vietnam, I couldn’t go any further. When I arrived in Saigon, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t walk more. Overall I had walked for six months.

There were five shelters for North Korean defectors in Vietnam, where around 460 defectors had been protected. As they became too many, the South Korean government discussed with UN and decided to charter two planes and carry the defectors directly from Vietnam to South Korea. The planes took off on July 26th, about 6 months after I arrived in Vietnam.

After I arrived in South Korea, I was interrogated by the South Korean government for 3 months, and then, I got South Korean citizenship.

What Are the Main Differences Between North and South Korea?

First, the economy. And also that there is freedom here. In South Korea, even if someone criticizes the president, are not arrested. In North Korea, if someone calls Kim Jeong Eun just Kim Jeong Eun, I mean, without a proper title, they can get arrested.

Another thing I like about South Korea is that here I can get rewarded for my hard work. Now I work in as a DJ for the Far East Broadcasting Company and do I some musical performances as well. Working as a singer [in North Korea] did not guarantee enough food. In South Korea, I can get what my hard work deserves. If I sing here as much as I did in North Korea, I would become rich. In North Korea, I sang 24/7, but I didn’t get what my hard work deserved. Here, if I sing one song, I can get a certain amount of money, like 400,000-500,000 KRW.

Somehow, I was able to get the jobs, but [for many North Koreans] it is very difficult. A case like mine is rare, I think because I worked as a singer. You know, music is universal. If you can read musical scores and have some basic skills related to music, you can work anywhere. As for most other North Koreans, what they learned in North Korea is useless here. So they usually do physical labor.

What is the Future of North Korea?

Ultimately, I hope the NK government will collapse. And as I’m a missionary, after North Korea is opened, I might go somewhere else, like Africa. I will go wherever God wants me to go.

My family has been arrested, and my brother got arrested recently – in March of this year. He got caught while he was talking with me on the phone. I don’t know if he is going to be sent to a political prisoner camp or if he will be executed. He got arrested while I was protesting this March. So I can’t stop protesting. [If anything] I should speak up more. After the arrest, I haven’t talked to him. All I’ve heard so far is that he was arrested. I sent to my family about $20 000 USD, telling them to try to get him out of jail with that money. But it seems impossible.

Now, I’m [protesting] in order to get people to know about me. I’m not trying to hide. It could be more dangerous, but it could be less dangerous, too. I’m gambling now. If I become famous here, my family might be less likely to be harmed.

Whether in Canada, the US, the UK, or South Korea, individuals have freedom. But North Koreans do not have freedom. If they say something problematic, they get arrested, as there is no freedom of speech there. If they protest like I am doing now, they would get arrested and executed. There is no freedom of religion, either. So there is no freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion there.

What I want to say is this: Everyone’s life is equally valuable whether he or she is the President, you, me, a North Korean defector, or a dying child in Africa.

In North Korea, most people’s life means nothing. North Korea is a country only for 1% of the people. In any country, great media or journalists consider human, individual life to be the most important, not just big economic or political issues. I think a genuine journalist is one who focuses on and talks about human life. This article, your pen, could save the people in political prisoner’s camps in North Korea, including my brother. The subtle difference coming from your pen might kill or save a person.

NOTE: These interviews have been edited for readability, but in no way has context been altered. 


Also posted in Blog, North Korea Tagged , , , , , |

Under Pressure: Byun Ho San | Part 2

Part 2 of  Byun Ho San’s interview will be the last in my series on pressure and stress in South Korean society. Mr. Byun is in a special position to comment on these issues as he has both seen the birth of the high pressure culture and worked his way diligently to the top of it. His company, KOSTAT, is the biggest and most profitable of its kind in Korea, with factories across Asia. This interview is a fitting end to the series as Mr. Byun, having worked incredibly hard for the best part of 30 years, is in the process of slowing down. While the first interview focused on the origins of the bali bali culture, this (much shorter) portion is centered around his personal perceptions and solutions. He has gone full circle within the bali bali business world of Korea, and a quote from my talk with him best sums up the whole Under Pressure series: Bali bali – good for the economy and bad for the soul.

These interviews have been both educational and entertaining for me and I feel like I have come out of it understanding the mystery that is South Korea a little bit more. As I have access to a large group of mostly bilingual adults, I am open to suggestions if there are people out there who would like to have their questions about this country answered by Koreans instead of a Wikipedia page or a bitter English teacher! Contact me.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.
Byun Ho San, 55, in one of his Seoul factories.

What Personal Stress Do You Have?

My 30’s were the most stressful time in my life. I started a business and I had no leverage or money. I had to survive by myself, there was no one to help me. When I established my company I rented a very small office and employed a young girl. I borrowed 2 million won (about $2000) from a friend. I had to find more clients so I was working day and night. There were many bad situations that I had to face. I could have taken a job at a big company but I had made up my mind to become a businessman. Sometimes when I met my friends who worked for companies like Samsung and LG I envied them and wondered why I chose to start a small business instead. But I had made a decision and I couldn’t give up. When I started my business I didn’t think about how stressful Korea was. But once I got into business I realized how difficult it was.

Out of my friends, less than 5% tried to start a business – the rest went to work for companies where they tried to advance. To advance they had to compete against many people and the competition is very intense. The working culture is still like this.

In the future I expect this culture will change a little bit. People want to enjoy their life and be with their family.

What is Your Solution?

I am very accustomed to the bali bali system. I know that it isn’t good for the soul and if we want to have a stable life we need to control this high speed. Right now I am trying to slow down gradually. At first it was very hard to calm down so I needed some practice on how to stabilize my mind. After I stabilized my soul I have felt much happier than before.

I have a very unique solution to the problem and it has made me very happy. I go to bookstores once a month and I read. Recently I have read many books on how to relax my soul. There were many methods. We need to learn more from Buddhism – especially the Buddhism from India. By reading these books I have made a final conclusion and created a solution for myself. It took five years.

 When I get up in the morning I think by myself for 20-30 minutes – about everything. I think about things that are good, better, and positive. Nothing negative. I have visions of hope, not sadness. Then my mind naturally calms down and I have dreams. I write them down five times and read them five times. After that I go to work I am ready. This is the secret to my success.

Byun Ho San sits in an empty board room in one of his corporate offices.




Also posted in Blog, South Korea, Under Pressure Tagged , , , , |

Under Pressure: Byun Ho San – Part 1

In the first half of my seventh interview about the fast paced and high pressure nature of Korean society, I talk with Byun Ho San. Mr. Byun is a 55 year old industrialist who grew up in a rural community to the Northwest of Seoul in the aftermath of the Korean War. In childhood he farmed his family’s land with oxen and wooden carts. Since then Ho San has risen to astounding heights – he is now the owner of the worlds second largest supplier of conductive plastics and his client list includes giants like Samsung and Texas instruments. An utterly modest man, it is all but impossible to get him to admit the true extent of his achievements.

The interview I did with Mr Byun was much longer than usual, mostly due to the wealth of information he was willing to share, and because of the depth of his insights into the forces driving his society. For the sake of readability, I have split the transcription into two parts. In this first half, The Birth of Bali Bali, Mr. Byun describes the events and the political situation which gave birth to Korea’s notorious social hustle.

I will post a condensed version of the full interview later; I’m try to get all of these interviews edited down to an appropriate length for their upcoming print publication, and its eating up most of my time.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Byun Ho San, 55 – Industrialist

Byun Ho San, 55

The Birth of Bali Bali

Most Koreans tend to be very hurried; I guess its our new culture. When my parents were young, they didn’t hurry in the same way. After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world – we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died. Our parents educated us that we should work very hard, and study very hard, otherwise we could not survive. There was no food and nothing to drink.

For survival [during the war years] my parents had to really hurry. They worked very hard, but at that time they were already adults. When the Japanese occupied Korea, there was no need to hurry up because there was no reason – they couldn’t make money anyways. There was a dictatorship, so even if they hurried up they could not gain any extra money.

It was the children of the wartime who were the first to really experience the bali bali (quickly quickly) culture. There was no food and we could only eat once or twice per day. The Americans gave us a lot of low-grade corn and during my elementary school days, and we used to have cornmeal every day. There was no food, so this was very delicious. There was no rice, no bread.

Whenever we came home from school, we had to work with our parents on the farms using oxen and raising chickens and pigs. During the daytime we had to work very hard and at night we had to study. Back then I had a good memory so I had to study a lot. But we had no electricity so we had to study using lanterns – it was very unfashionable! When I would wake up the next morning and look in the mirror, I would have a black nose from the fumes. This was not a very long time ago.

When I was 10, electricity came to the countryside. The people were very surprised; it was very bright. It looked like we were liberated from the black world. We had serious hardships during our childhood days, so I could taste the value of electricity. The young generation had to work to overcome a lot of obstacles.

The famous dictator [Park Chung Hee] did many things for Korea. He ruled by dictatorship, but he could not help it. It was a very dangerous situation; if Korea had tried democracy, we would have been bankrupt – like the Philippines. Previously the Philippines had been very rich, much richer than Korea. Park Chung Hee made his best effort to improve our life quality and came up with a lot of ideas to develop and improve our country. He made a policy of rural revolution and he spread a “can do attitude”. So people were continuously told “we can do it”. They broadcast it over the radio: If we co-operate together, we can do it. If we was to be successful, we had to hurry up. There was not enough time for anyone, including me. Because of this new attitude, Korean people could reach our current status as a developed country.

So my generation all worked together under this attitude. Now I have two daughters, and I had to educate them in the same way – even 10 years ago Korea was still developing. Also, Korean mothers are special. They are very diligent and they focus all their energy on the education of their children. I think this is the same as mothers from other places, but Korean mothers are much more aggressive!

So bali bali culture made our country what it is. When I started my business, I though that there would be no chance to overcome Japanese technology. When I was 35 I had a chance to go to Tokyo – I wanted to import antistatic products. It was my first visit and I was very curious about Japan. When I arrived at the airport I was very surprised. At that time there were not many cars in Korea, but in Tokyo I could see so many luxurious cars. I couldn’t imagine how Korea could overcome. I was humbled.

Now 30 years has passed. Samsung started by importing technology for black and white TVs from Japan. They started to make superconductors, which the analysts said was crazy. For seven years they had a deficit. We never could have imagined that Samsung would conquer them all. It is because of the bali bali attitude. Samsung works twice as much as their competitors like Sony and General Electric. By working hard and by continuous imitation, the level of technology is the same as international companies, and more.

Thinking of when I was a young man in Japan, I could not believe that I would see a Korean company overcome a Japanese company. But right now it is reality. It is the same with many industries. Pohang Steel is a top business and our shipbuilding is the best. One by one we are becoming number one in the world. It is the same “can do” attitude that was repressed by the Japanese for 35 years – no rights, no culture. Now we know the real value of Koreans. Korean people now know how to win – it is bali bali.

This is very useful for industry, but it is bad for the soul.

Also posted in Blog, South Korea, Under Pressure Tagged , , , , , |

Under Pressure: Cho Jun Ho

In the sixth interview of my series on the high stress nature of modern Korean society I talk with Cho Jun Ho, a 33 year old IT specialist who lives in Seoul. As a young family man in his working prime, Jun Ho represents the Korean “everyman”, part of the mass of smart and educated middle class who are forced to compete with each other for the few best jobs. Jun Ho is by no means a beaten and weary salary man; in fact he is an energetic and positive person who finds happiness everywhere he can. But through his voice we can learn about the crushing social and financial pressures that have become a normality in South Korean life.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Cho Jun Ho, 33 – IT Specialist

Cho Jun Ho, 33

 Where Does Pressure Come From in Korea?

At my age most people are interested in marriage and their jobs aren’t very stable. They all have the same kinds of stress. One of my friend’s hair is falling out because he has so much stress at his office. He has to work day and night. At the same time he wants to have a relationship, but it is very difficult because he has no time. When he finishes work he goes home and his parents ask him why he doesn’t have a girlfriend or a wife. That also gives him stress. So he has stress at work and at home – there is no place where he has no stress in his adult life. I think it is the same for most people in Korea who are my age.

What Personal Pressure Do You Feel?

I have stress, but I just talk with my wife and my God, and it makes me comfortable. But without them I cannot control myself. I get very angry and I want to fight someone.

After getting married, my life has become more comfortable. But it also creates stress because I have to earn more money than I do now. I have my wife and in the near future I want to have a baby also – and that means I need even more money to maintain our life. Money is stress.

The Korean traditional personality is very bali bali (quickly quickly) which means they need to get results as soon as possible. Not all, but most Korean people are like this. They never relax. They have no empty space in their minds. They do not think about anything other than their stress and what they have to do.

Some Koreans have hobbies, but most do not. The most important thing to them is just work, earning money and meeting a partner. Compared to a life in the US where there is a lot of nature and people can hang out outside or have a BBQ with friends, in Seoul it is impossible. People just drink soju (rice liquor). It is the only thing that young people can do with each other, and it’s the only thing the can really do to get rid of stress. This cannot be the solution to stress.

It is important to have hobbies. I want to make a documentary film, but these days I have no time. I have to work, and after work I have to go home to my wife.**Laughs**. Most Koreans are like that; they think they have no time, but they can make time. But when they have time off, they don’t want to do anything, just relax.

After the Korean War, people were very poor. The President made a plan for Korea, telling people they had to work hard to succeed in raising their social status. That mindset has still not changed much these days, even though we are not starving anymore. It makes people think the most important thing in their lives is earning money.

This is changing now because of the Internet. People can see more than they could before – the Internet is very popular here. They know that there are many beautiful places in the world where they can go. They also know what people do around the world and it makes them want to do the same things. The national personality is changing. This has two sides; the good side is that it makes them happier, but the bad side that some companies use this for marketing to sell their products.

What is the Solution?

Money is very important, but people have to stop thinking it is the most important thing in their life. There are better things, like hobbies, which most people don’t have any experience with, including me.

Most people just want people to think that they are doing very well. They change their status on a social network and when someone else hits the “like” button they are very satisfied. But I think these social networks will bring new stress. People use Facebook everyday, but if it goes away these people will get very confused, like they lost their baby. It’s the same with cell phones. Koreans use their cell phone so much, for everything. But if it is gone for just one day, they are very sad.

When I have kids I want to show them nature. I want to show them more beautiful things. But I don’t really expect this, because I will live in Seoul.

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Under Pressure: Suh Kwang Ho

The fifth instalment of my interview series provides a rare insight into the challenges facing Korea’s disabled population. Suh Kwang Ho, 37, was born with Cerebral Palsy and is confined to an electric wheelchair. Despite physical limitations, Kwang Ho is an extremely active individual. He holds a Master’s degree, regularly attends group language lessons, freelances for technology magazines, and maintains a comprehensive blog about changes in the web design industry. Like his role model, Stephen Hawking, Kwang Ho is eager to dispel illusions that the physically disabled are anything less than able when it comes to brain power.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Suh Kwang Ho, 37

Web Programmer and Freelance Writer

Suh Kwang Ho, 37. A web programmer and freelance technology writer, born with cerebral palsy.


What Causes Pressure in Korean Society?

Korea’s President, Lee Myun Bak [is the cause of pressure] in Korea. People hate him – not all of them, but most people hate him. He tries to control both the press and society. People are not free, and they cannot talk freely. He will also try to control social networks in the future. By controlling Yoido [the broadcasting center of Seoul], he can control society.

 What Kind of Personal Pressure Do You Feel?

I am a disabled man. Public transport is extremely difficult in Korea – there are not many busses for disabled men. Three years ago I went to St. Louis, Missouri to visit my sister. There I could take a bus very easily, and the bus driver was very kind. But in Korea, taking a bus is not easy, and the drivers are not kind. When the busses are very crowded it is the worst. When they are not crowded, people can be kind, but Korean people live bali bali (quickly quickly). When I ride a bus, it is very slow – it takes a long time for me to get on and off. People get annoyed very quickly. It is stressful for me to move around.

 People’s attitudes must change about the disabled. Many people in Korea suppose that a disabled man does not have any abilities, but the disabled are the same [as other people]. I am maybe not so smart, but I have been writing magazine articles in Korean for the last 2 years. I also want to be a good writer in English, but it is difficult.

 It is also difficult for a disabled man to get a job. After I graduated from university, I didn’t get a job for a long time, maybe 1 or 2 years. People see a disabled person and they think he isn’t able. They only see my body, not my brain. They also think that I cannot communicate with other people.

 I finally got a job in 2000 by sending my resume to online sites. Even now that I have a lot of experience, getting a job is not so easy. This is the situation.

 What is your solution?

It’s a difficult question. Maybe I can go abroad. It might be possible to have a normal life in Korea, but not yet. Maybe when this government is gone. Before he was elected president, Lee Myun Bak said if a woman gets pregnant with a disabled baby, the baby should be killed. I hate him. Really. It’s terrible.

Things are a little better than before, when I first came to Seoul (in 1999). At that time, when I crossed the street people looked at me very strangely. They looked at me like it was a museum. Now it is better though.

 If possible, I would like to live abroad – maybe the USA or Canada. Is Canada good for a disabled man? The cold is no problem, I just hate hot weather. I heard that the Internet is not so fast though. If that’s true I will hate it!

 I want to have a normal life and I want to be a better writer.

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Under Pressure: Park Eun Ah

The fourth in my interview series about what makes South Korea such a stressful society to be a part of. The final year of high school in Korea is often referred to as “the year of hell” as the grueling study hours and the pressure of university applications reach their climax.  Park Eun Ah, 18, graduated from the public high school system less than two months ago and shares her views on the pressure and stress that young Koreans face as they enter the adult world.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Park Eun Ah, 18

High School Graduate

Park Eun Ah, 18

Where does pressure come from in Korea?

When I was little I didn’t have to study that much, but now they are studying in elementary school so that they can go to a good middle school or a foreign school. You know, they are little students, little boys and girls who want to play a lot, but they are studying at home and at academies.

Korean people always ask what university you have graduated from. It is like a status symbol. That’s why parents always want their kids to go to a good university, so that they can get good pay at their jobs.

I want to find a job that I really enjoy. I don’t really care about the money, but society doesn’t really want me to be like that. So my job is for society, not for me – and I think that’s not fair. For example, if I major in English literature, I won’t really get a job related to English. There aren’t enough jobs so I can’t do what I really want.

 What Pressure Do You Feel Personally?

A long time ago [teachers] cared about students, but now going to university is the student’s responsibility and they do not help us at all. Teachers just tell us to study, study, study, and if we don’t study they don’t really care because its our future, not theirs.

If you care about your future there is a lot of pressure. In my head I think I have to go to a good university and I have to get a good job, so that creates pressure. Parents and teachers just say study, study, study. You have to do this, this, and this to get good [exam] scores and go to a good school. That’s pressure. We have to study so that we can get good scores. It’s just about scores, not abilities.

In high school we have grades; first grade is the best, second grade, third grade and so on. Ninth grade is the worst. But even if you get a first grade score, you might not go to a good university because, if the exam is easy, many students might get a first grade score. You have to beat the other students and it’s very competitive. The average could be 97%, and so the students would have to get 100% [to be competitive].

An average student goes to school at 7:30 or 8:00am and finishes at 4 or 5pm. We eat dinner at school. Then we have to study at school by ourselves until 10pm. Then we go home or to the library and continue to study until 1 or 2 am. Then we go to sleep and go to school again. That’s our pattern. That’s why people commit suicide. They study really hard, and then if they [botch] the exam, they get depressed.

I was depressed as well because I couldn’t get into a better university – I didn’t study enough. If I go to a low university, opportunities will be low. But even if you go to a really good university, you [might] not get a really good job. For example, some people graduated from a really good university, but now they are just teachers. And teachers get low pay.

I don’t really want people to feel pressure, but they have to. That’s Korea’s way, so I cannot do anything about it. It will never change. But Korean women are not having children [these days], so maybe in 40 or 50 years, there will be fewer children in university and it will be easier.

 What is the Solution? When Will the Pressure Stop?

Never! Because after university I have to find a job and I have to get married. If [there is a] person who I really want to marry I have to think about his status. Love doesn’t matter. I really want to marry somebody who I love, I don’t really care about his status, but my parents will care. [They think] I can live a better life with a husband who can earn much money. I don’t want people to stress about their status, but I don’t think it’s possible.

I lived in NZ for 2 years, so I know it’s completely different than Korea. They play outside and do sports, but in Korea they don’t really have much time for sports. But even if I was born in New Zealand I would still feel pressure. There is nothing to do there. At night everything is closed after 10, so I have to go to sleep. In New Zealand people just stay outside all the time and relax, but in Korea there are many big buildings. I want to stay in Korea, because I am Korean. In Korea life is very fast, and I always do things very fast. That’s a good thing.

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Under Pressure: Oh Jae Kyong

In third installment of my interview series examining the high-pressure nature of modern Korean society, I talk with Jae Kyong Oh, a 30 year old International Education Consultant. Jae Kyong gives a distinctly female perspective on stress in her country, and specifically how it relates to being a prospective mother. Having lived in California for more than 7 years, Jae Kyong is also in a special position to comment on her native country as it compares to the Western world.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Oh Jae Kyong, 30

International Education Consultant

Oh Jae Kyong, 30

Where does pressure come from in Korea?

I think Korean society has become very stratified in a way. Moving between classes is getting harder and harder, and conflict between the classes, between the high incomes and low incomes is getting very [intense].

After the war in the 70’s and 80’s, the majority of people in Korea were not rich. Everyone worked hard so they could get a better job, but after 20 or 30 years, that upwards movement has pretty much stopped. Before, when everyone was poor, it was easier to get a better job and to get better pay by having a good education. But nowadays, poor people cannot get a good education. That is a problem in Korea.

In the normal education system I don’t think teachers are working very hard. Being a teacher used to be a very good job, and while still it is a good job, students don’t really respect teachers anymore. They think that they get better education from private tutors because they pay more. So the teachers are not working hard to keep up with what the students want.

Parents are pushing their children to do more private tutoring all the time because they believe the public education is not good enough. So I guess they are giving this idea to their children and it devalues the system.

What Kind of Personal Pressure Do You Feel?

Because I got a degree from the US, it was a little bit easy for me to get a job. I can speak English and Korean pretty much fluently so that was easy for me at first. But my personal stress level comes from the Korean lifestyle. By law [in other countries] there is an 8-hour work day, and if you work more you get paid more. But in Korea, most companies don’t really pay for overtime. For me I go to work at 9.30 a.m. and supposedly the day should end at 6 p.m., but I work until 7. It’s not really a lot compared to other people, but still these hours are not flexible. The pay is OK, but you have to work really, really hard. I don’t have time to go to the restroom because I have to focus all the time. If you boss stays late, then you have to stay late, too.

But I think the most stress comes from being a woman. In Korea there are not many laws for women, they are not really protected in society. Being a newly married couple, both the husband and wife have to work to manage [financially]. If a woman needs to take a break for maternity leave, its not really allowed. If you leave to take care of your child, it’s really hard to get a job afterwards. Being a future mom, just thinking about it is really hard. In Korea they are not really supportive at all – maternity leave is only 3 months.

What is the solution?

I hope that the government makes more detailed laws supporting women in the workplace, especially about maternity leave. But when I look at the current government, I don’t really have hope. I try to like our president, and I don’t really want to be angry with him, it’s just that I don’t really see how they are going to help us. I need to find a solution for myself, either from religion, or by trying to make more income so I can hire a babysitter to allow me to keep working.

In Korea the university tuition is increasing. It costs about the same to send your child to a private university in Seoul as it does to send them to a state university in the US, so I thought about sending my kids overseas – or moving away from Korea. But because my parents live here and I want to be close to them I’m still deciding. If I have enough money I will probably send my kids overseas. I can’t imagine them growing up in Seoul in a very high-pressure society, trying to be at the top and having to compete with everyone. They won’t get to enjoy their life.

Koreans don’t even really enjoy their hobbies. They don’t really know what to do because they’ve never been encouraged to do something they like. They’ve just been encouraged to do something which is the majority of society thinks is good. If people think taking photos is cool, then everyone buys a camera. Or if they think golf is a luxury sport, they try to play golf all the time just to show they’re rich. Hobbies are not really hobbies in Korea, they are just to show your class.

The main reason I chose to leave the US and come back to Korea was that I experienced a glass ceiling being a minority there. There was a limit to my opportunity. Americans are not really racist or anything, there is not really discrimination but if you try to move up at a job it hard for minorities. At least in Korea I can work hard and move up. The door to move between classes is getting narrower than before, but still it’s possible. I guess that’s why Korean people work hard and diligently to get better and better.

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Under Pressure: Kwon Ji Hoon

In the second installment of my interview series examining the high-pressure nature of modern Korean society, I talk with Kwon Ji-Hoon, a 25 year old university student who shares his views on the causes of stress in his culture. As a student, Ji-Hoon is in a unique position to comment on the pressures Korea’s youth face as they prepare to enter a highly competitive job market.

Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Kwon Ji-Hoon, 25 – Student

Kwon Ji-Hoon, 25

Where Does Pressure in Korea come from?

When I was a high school student I had a lot of pressure because if my friends or kids in my neighbourhood went to study math or science, my mother also felt like she also had to send me to an academy. So it is a bad circle. A lot of children go to academies to study, and it makes them competitive with each other. Students especially have a lot of pressure.

Many parents want their children to go to a good university, but as you know the universities choose a limited number of people. So that’s why we compete with each other, my friends and I.

I think students feel pressure from their parents because their parents expect them to always do better. I also had a lot of pressure from my parents. When I took an exam and got a bad score, but I had tried to study hard, my parents didn’t care about that. Just the score. So I got depressed. Some parents pay a lot of attention to their children. If the parents expect more than their children’s skill allows, maybe they will have a lot of pressure.

I think in our country there is a lot of pressure because it is small, but the population is so much compared to other countries. But the jobs or university places are limited. So our country has a lot of angry ill (aggression disorders) because of the stress. 30 or 40 percent of people have this anger.

 Is there a solution?

I think that it is impossible for the pressure to stop. If the education system totally changes, maybe the stress can be reduced; but I think it’s impossible. To totally change the education system is too difficult. So in my country it is like a bad cycle. It is impossible.

I’m a university student. I have pressure to get a good job. I think maybe all university students are worried about getting a job. 10 years ago when we went to university, people would get together for drinking or activities, but nowadays many people just study. As I get older, I have to be responsible for myself.

When will the pressure stop?

The only time I felt no pressure is when I was young, like in Kindergarten. Also…no, just kindergarten. The pressure started in elementary school. But nowadays the kindergartens also have pressure.

Sometimes I don’t feel the pressure. I try to do my hobbies, like travel or exercise with my friends or relax. But just during this time [I don’t feel pressure]. After that I am getting the pressure back.


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Under Pressure: High Stress in Korean Society

There is a tendency among many expats to align themselves along an us-vs-them axis in South Korea. That is to say that many members of the foreign community (typically teachers or soldiers) feel that they are the “normal” people living in a strange and illogical society. Expats often don’t understand why Koreans are the way they are here, and a lot of the time they don’t really want to find out.

I’m no expert on the intricacies of Korean society, but I feel that when living in someone else’s country there is a responsibility to take the time to answer these sorts of questions, rather than simply dismissing an entire culture as being nonsensical or weird.

So I started asking questions and conducting interviews – sometimes with friends, sometimes with co-workers, and sometimes with people I barely know – to try and get a more personal kind of insight into what makes this society tick. The first such issue I have begun to explore is that of pressure.

Korea is notorious for being one of the most faced paced, stressful, and high pressure environments on the planet – and I want to know what that means for average citizens. Over the course of 20+ interviews, I am trying to find out the answers to some basic questions: Where does the pressure come from? How does it affect people’s lives? Is there a solution?

Those interviewed are of varied backgrounds. They have different jobs, they are different ages, and they (for the most part) don’t know each other. Hopefully some common themes will emerge so people can begin to understand rather than simply shaking their heads and muttering “crazy Koreans”.

Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Hwang In-Gi, 27 – Ph.D Candidate

Hwang In-Gi, 27

What Causes Pressure in Korean Society?

Making money is the biggest problem. Compared to the money we usually spend, the money we make is not that much.

In Australia, even old people can get a job easily. Wal-Mart is a good example. They hire old people; even some of them are working in wheelchairs or something. In Korea it never happens. Once you get old, once your physical abilities are going down, it means that you are not able to make any more money. It means that you will be abandoned in society. And they are afraid of that. Korea is one of the most difficult countries to get a job once you reach your 50’s. Even if you are really eager to work, you can’t. How you look doesn’t really matter, it’s only about your age.

Compared to the States, we don’t have well-established pension plan, and many people are worried about that. The government is currently guaranteeing a very small pension, and the age for retirement is getting younger – they usually get fired when they reach 50, compared to Japan, where people usually retire in their late 60s or something. My uncle, he used to work for Samsung, and of course he made lots of money while he was working there. But he kind of got fired when he turned 52. Because he was old.

We need some kind of social system. I mean, in Australia, as long as you have the will to keep working, the company is not able to fire you unless you are a very naughty worker. But here, the CEO or whoever owns the company, they have a right to fire you anytime they want. They do this because they don’t want to pay more. Lets say this: with the amount of money they pay for one manager, they can hire four new young people.

Usually a manager at a company like LG would get paid 4.2 million won (about $3800), and a worker with two years experience would usually get paid 2.2 million. The efficiency of one manager is not as good as two young people. The company wants new people. It’s kind of a stereotype, but Korean people believe that younger people’s minds are new and fresh and flexible. On the other hand, old people do not want to change. We are living in a world where the need to change and adapt to new environments is very important, and they think old people can’t really do that.

 What Causes Pressure for You Personally?

For now, I’m 27, I just need to cover myself – no wife or kids – so I’m not really worrying about many things. But as soon as I get married and have a kid then I will feel like my Dad. We spend almost $800 000 – that is the amount of money we need to raise a kid. It is considered normal to pay for our children’s tuitions fees, even in university, and that is what my mom did. So she covered me until I got my bachelor’s degree.

Now the pressure comes from the money I need to get married. I need $100 000 to get married, usually. Men are supposed to buy a house and women are supposed to fill it with up with some electronics or something. Usually men will pay more. But there is no way I can make that amount of money considering what I’m doing now. I’m a student and I’m making a very small amount of money at my work. I want to get married before I turn 31, which is not really possible financially. Mentally and physically I’m ready, but financially is the big problem. I can get married, but it will be super tricky unless my wife’s parents are super rich.

Is there a solution? When does the pressure stop?

When we are in the tiny place called the grave. Unless we have a very stable financial plan, such as a pension – which only [approximately] 12% of Korean people get.

The consumption of liquor is very high in Korea. That is why most of the office workers drink a lot. That is the way, by drinking, that they relieve their stress. That is the typical way Korean people escape. Temporarily.

A real solution will only come with time. We need a change in our system. We need to collect more tax from rich people, but the government is doing the opposite. Actually the government has been reducing tax for rich people so that they can spend more money, and they believe that is the only way to revive the dying economy. But once they start gathering more tax, people will not like it. People will not understand. We only collect 12%, but in other countries the tax is almost 30 or 32 percent of their income. That is how they are able to raise the quality of life. I would be willing to pay more tax if the government could come up with a good plan.



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