A slip of the tongue

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A slip of the tongue


I read a Dong-A Ilbo article just the other day titled “President Park Geun-hye’s slip of the tongue in her English condolence.” For those wondering what kind of Konglish - which refers to unnatural English usage occasionally used by some native Korean speakers - the president had written in memory of Lee Kuan Yew, the apparently offending text ran: “The Korean people join all of Singapore in mourning his loss.”

This sentence was judged to be “weird” and wrong. Does “his loss” imply the loss of Lee to Singapore, or ownership, for example that Lee had lost something?

To which I say, “who cares?” It is quite obvious what Park meant. Language is about context. The fact that someone wrote an article about this non-incident says far more about the nature and role of English in Korea than it does about the president’s English ability.

As everyone knows, Korean society judges people on their English ability - or to be more precise, on the ability to take exams that test their mastery of pedantic grammar rules and obscure vocabulary that the average native English speaker has no idea about. If even the president isn’t immune from English grammar fascism, what hope does everyone else have? No wonder so many Koreans are terrified of English.

As an Englishman, I of course think of my language as a beautiful thing. But English isn’t beautiful, nor even a language, in Korea. It is a drawbridge to be pulled up. It is a reason to sneer at people.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing the president - there’s a ton of ammunition from the past twelve months, and if you can’t fire it, then you aren’t living in a democracy - but at least criticize the president over something more worthwhile than some trivial grammatical aspect of a foreign language.

There must be a million social, economic and political issues far more worthy of attention. Forgive me for changing the subject, but here is just one example: last November, a man in his 40s was found not guilty of “sexual violence” against a middle-school girl, despite the fact that he had had a “consensual” sexual relationship with her.

Korea inherited its extremely low age of consent from Japanese colonial law, and so far hasn’t gotten around to changing it (neither has Japan). Several times, I have seen stories in the local press about men in their 30’s or older having gone unpunished for having sex with 13 or 14 year old girls because it was “consensual.” Unless a greater crime such as force (or abuse of power, an ambiguous matter) is proven, no offense has taken place.

Does anyone actually believe that a 13 or 14 year-old is not a child? The fact that these stories actually make it into the press suggests that people do find such behavior scandalous. But in the eyes of the law, it can be found acceptable.

The age of the other party and the particulars of the case should be taken into account. In Taiwan, for instance, punishment is either reduced or is not applied when the other party is under 19. Some children grow up much quicker than others.

But a line has to be drawn somewhere, and I am convinced that the line has to be set somewhere higher than 13.

There have been attempts to raise the age of consent, such as that of then-Grand National Party lawmaker Kwon Seong-dong, who tried to lift it to 16 in 2012. I am mystified as to why it is still 13. With the ever-increasing concern over child protection, I doubt any political party would have anything to lose by throwing its weight behind a legal change here. One does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out why a piece of legislation like the Kim Young-ran Act, an anti-corruption law, took an eternity to pass (and with the guts ripped out of it), but there are no such incentives at work here.

Other than Japan, the only developed country with such a low age of consent was Spain. But Spain recently raised its age of consent to 15. Korea’s laws on the sexual exploitation of minors are still obviously ambiguous and weak; would it not make sense then to say sayonara to them now and introduce a law that sends a clear message instead?

*The author, former Seoul correspondent for The Economist, is co-founder and chief curator of Byline and the author of “Korea: The Impossible Country” and “North Korea Confidential.’’

by Daniel Tudor

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