[FOUNTAIN]The ambassador’s darkest secret

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[FOUNTAIN]The ambassador’s darkest secret

Japanese Ambassador Toshiyuki Takano left Korea Wednesday after two years and seven months of service in Seoul. Mr. Takano is the man who caused a national uproar in February with his remark that Dokdo ― or Takeshima, as he calls it ― was really Japanese territory. With that comment, the “Korea-Japan Friendship Year” lost its meaning.
During his service in Seoul, there was one thing Mr. Takano feared: dinner gatherings with Koreans. It was not the dinners themselves that he worried about. Every time he set off for another one, he was stricken with unease about the thought of having to drink another whiskey shot in a glass of beer ― a “bomb shot,” as we call them. (Other countries call them “boilermakers.”)
Mr. Takano couldn’t drink more than a single bomb shot. It was joked that his drinking capacity was a state secret. For him, the endless parade of bomb shots that a dinner with Koreans typically entailed could scarcely have been less frightening than an actual bomb.
Outgoing Chinese Ambassador Li Bin is just the opposite. This is his fourth year in Korea, and he has never refused a bomb shot. No one knows for sure how many he can drink, including Mr. Li himself. The most anyone has actually seen him drink is 16. On that occasion, he only stopped because one of his colleagues had to lie down. A spokesman at the Chinese Embassy who was appointed just four months ago is already leaving; his capacity for bomb shots, or lack thereof, is one reason why. The thinking, or so it is said, is that a person who can’t handle bomb shots is unsuited to be a spokesperson in Korea.
In Seoul’s diplomatic community, the bomb shot has always been an issue. One diplomat says its power lies not just in getting people drunk fast. Its real destructive quality, he says, is that it levels the playing field. When you have to down a whole glass in a single shot, with everyone looking at you, it doesn’t matter how accomplished a drinker you are.
It’s this Korean principle of equality that makes bomb shots so scary, according to this diplomat. The same principle is at work in the Korean expression “getting a stomachache when an in-law buys land,” which means the same thing as “turning green with envy.” The point is that a person can be a loser when he underperforms others, but can be an even bigger loser if he outperforms others.
Is this the logic behind the current national debates over elitism ― whether it’s people with more assets than the average person, companies who make above-average profits or schools that want above-average students? It’s a hot issue. If equality is what we’re after, why don’t we all just get together for some bomb shots?


by You Sang-chul

* The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s Asia news editor.
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