Virtual pundits in a foreign land

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Virtual pundits in a foreign land

Last month’s murder of Kim Sun-il by Islamic militants in Iraq horrified Korea. And when a video clip of Mr. Kim’s decapitation began to circulate on the Internet, the government moved quickly to block Koreans from seeing it.
Ironically, some of the people in Korea most likely to have complained about such censorship found themselves censored at the same time.
On the day after Mr. Kim’s murder, many Web sites suddenly became inaccessible for many Korean Internet users. Among them were a substantial number of English-language “blogs,” or personal online journals, maintained by expatriates in Korea.
The Ministry of Information and Communication had asked Korean Internet service providers to block a list of sites that carried the decapitation video. In denying access to those sites ― hosted by U.S.-based blogging services like Blogspot and TypePad ― the companies blocked access to all the other sites hosted by those services.
“People have basic rights to pursue happiness, and an exposure to such cruel images can be a violation of human rights,” explained Han Myeong-ho, an official with the ministry’s Information and Communication Ethics Commission.
The reaction from the expat bloggers ― some of whom are known among their readers for caustic criticism of Korean society ― was unsurprising. Some pointed out angrily that the government had seen no need to block access to the video of the beheading weeks before of an American hostage, Nick Berg. A blogger calling himself Oranckay (a word for “foreigner”) said Korea wasn’t likely to become a “hub of Northeast Asia” with this kind of censorship. Blogger Joel Browning has been circulating a petition calling the censorship “behavior more becoming of a fascist state than of a thriving democracy.” As of Thursday, service providers were still blocking access to some blogs, though some of the local bloggers were getting around it by setting up new Web addresses.

Dozens of English-speaking Korean expats keep blogs (short for “Web logs”), ranging in scope from day-in-the-life diaries by teachers to news-oriented blogs that maintain a running commentary on Korean political events. Though it’s difficult to generalize, more of the political blogs seem to lean right than left. One of the more popular conservative blogs is “The Marmot’s Hole,” kept by Robert Koehler, an American who does translation work for the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
A recent “Marmot” post, on the proposed relocation of the Korean capital to the Gongju area, allows that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” adding, “But then again, I don’t recall Rome having to renovate its social system, develop an ‘independent defense’ and pay its farmers to protect them against the evil imperialist Chilean agricultural industry all at the same time.”
A favorite theme among conservative expat bloggers is a South Korean tendency, as they see it, to villainize George W. Bush’s America and make excuses for Kim Jong-il’s North Korea. They question why “progressives” in Korea who are scathing about Bush and the dictators of South Korea’s past don’t say much about the abuses occurring just a few hours’ drive to the north.
“Condolences to the family of Kim Sun-il,” the keeper of the blog Incestuous Amplification wrote shortly after the killing. “In part because their son suffered a horrible death, and in part because he has now become a pawn in the Hate-America fest of Korean NGO’s whether they like it or not.
“They will see his face plastered on websites, protest posters, and ‘memorials’ as a victim of George Bush and the Great Satan for the rest of their natural lives. Anyone who’s been in Korea for more than a week saw this coming from the minute the kidnapping story broke.”
The blogger Oranckay, who asked that his real name not be used, thinks some of the conservative bloggers might have a different tone had they lived here under the dictatorships, when dissidents were massacred and North Koreans were routinely caricatured in school textbooks.
“Most of those bloggers did not live in Korea in the 1980s, but if they did, I imagine they might sound less conservative,” he said.
Whatever their criticisms of Korea, in person, the bloggers the JoongAng Daily spoke with don’t seem to mind it here. Mr. Koehler sometimes wears modernized hanbok to work. “I like living in Korea. If I didn’t like it here, I would go back home,” he said. Oranckay has lived here for more than a decade and speaks almost perfect Korean.
“It is kind of natural [for bloggers] to come off as negative, but they really like Korea,” said Mike Ferrin, who writes the JoongAng Daily’s “Itaewon Wanderings” column and maintains a mostly politics-and-news site called “Seeing-Eye Blog.”
Between attacks on Kim Jong-il and Michael Moore, Mr. Ferrin translates political cartoons from the Korean dailies, links to his column and, for a while, posted photos of attractive biracial people under the title “Half Korean of the Day.”
“Most popular blogs are political ones,” Mr. Ferrin said. “People don’t want to read other people’s diaries.”
That doesn’t stop some people from writing them. An erstwhile English teacher named David Chrisman has a site called “Big Bad Hair” full of ruminations about, among other topics, the kids in his classes. By the time you’ve read some of the posts, you feel like you’ve been riding the school bus with them. A kid named Babo comes particularly to life; he and Mr. Chrisman bond over their shared enthusiasm for the “chicken bake” at Costco.
“For six months, Babo and I spoke Costconian almost exclusively,” Mr. Chrisman writes. “It turned out, he knew a few other words but was plagued by an ignorance of functional English that would keep him in my level 3-6 class until his late teens. I have absolutely no problem with that. Babo, along with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Costco menu, is extremely funny. Not in an amped-up, class clown, Jim Carrey sort of way, but more of a sedated Steven Wright, if Steven Wright were young, Korean and covered in ice cream stains.”

Unlike their counterparts in the United States, who’ve sometimes shamed the mainstream media into covering stories they’d missed ― such as the coronation ceremony for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon held last spring in a U.S. Senate office building (it’s true) ― the bloggers who spoke to the Joong-Ang Daily seemed under no illusion that they had much influence in Korea. A couple of the more popular blogs get 1,000 to 1,500 hits a day, and it’s safe to say that Korea’s decisionmakers aren’t among the readers.
Still, they keep at it. “Because I live here. That’s one reason,” Mr. Koehler said. “When Mayor Lee Myung-bak rushes through a new transportation system and slows down the traffic, that affects me. Korea’s foreign policies are going to affect me.”
Also, it’s fun. “Blogging is a sort of therapeutic activity and acts as an outlet for your thoughts and frustration,” said Mr. Ferrin, who says he’s up all night some nights working on “Seeing Eye Blog.” “But basically it is for fun. It is just fun to challenge or refute what’s being said in the newspapers or by friends.”
“One of the reasons I began blogging is because I have always been displeased with the level of discourse in English about Korea,” Oranckay said. “Then, often, Korea is so poor at explaining itself that sometimes it makes matters worse.”
Then are these blogs a fair representation of Korea? “I hope not,” Mr. Koehler said. “Blogs are personal Web pages, and they are not meant to be fair. They are more a fair representation of personal views.”

Some noteworthy expat blogs:

Incestuous Amplification
This guy has, perhaps, been in Korea just a bit too long. Not for the faint of heart, this blog will probably leave you either seriously offended or splitting your sides with laughter.

The Marmot’s Hole
Features political commentary, not only in regard to Korea, but other parts of Asia as well. This guy knows his stuff and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the politics of Northeast Asia.

Big Bad Hair
David Sedaris, anyone? A decidedly less-than-serious take on Korea, among other things, from a teacher who spent the past two years here. This one is laugh-out-loud funny.

Big Homonid
A blogger with that rare ability to make tales of his daily life very funny, very interesting and, most importantly, very readable.

FatMan Seoul
As this blogger states from the top: “Some people eat to live. Some live to eat. I belong to the latter, and it shows.” Loads of pictures and information about, what else, Korean food. Great for those new to Korea and interested in finding out what exactly all that stuff in the little bowls in front of them really is.

Another Korean long-termer. More social/political commentary. The owner of this blog translates a lot of Korean media into English, providing insight and analysis along the way.

As explained on this page, some computer users in Korea might find these sites inaccessible, at least for the time being.
― Grant Surridge, contributing writer

by Limb Jae-un
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