Archive for the korea / tourist at home Category

Korean government offers generous loan terms for poor college students

In a followup to a previous post, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Korea through Education: A Social Business Proposal I saw some very exciting news that the Korean government will move to provide long-term full tuition coverage student loans for poor students starting 2010.

It even stipulates that the students are only required to pay back the loan after they find employment over a maximum 25 years. It also supports living expenses.

More detailed article on 헤럴드 경제 (sorry, in Korean) says that the conditions of the loan are:

취업을 못해 일정수준 이상의 소득을 올리지 못하면 상환 의무도 없어진다.
수혜 대상은 기초수급자 및 소득 1~7분위(연간 가구소득 인정액 4839만원 이하)에 속하는 가정의 대학생으로 평균 성적이 C학점 이상이어야 한다. 고소득층인 8~10분위 가정은 기존의 대출 방식을 적용받는다. 특히 1인당 대출 한도액(현행 대학 4년간 최대 4000만원까지)을 없애 연간 등록금 소요액 전액과 생활비 연 200만원을 대출받을 수 있게 된다. 생활비는 기초생활수급자에게는 무상으로, 소득 1~7분위는 소득에 따라 무이자 또는 정상 대출방식으로 지원된다.

Very encouraging indeed. This does remove some of the barriers the poor students had to accessing higher education and bettering their lives.

Still remaining is how to make inroads into the issue of supporting poor kids while they are in school and bridging the gap between them and kids who get private extra-curricular education (사교육).

Update 2009-08-24
Some opposing opinions about the new loans. (in Korean)

The article claims:
– If you postpone repayment after graduating, you still get charged interest;
– Given the current employment market, most graduates will not be able to afford the repayment schedule;
– Loans mean that grants given to low-income students will reduced;
– This may be grounds for raising tuition, since you payback after you graduate;
– For the government providing the loans, this is another long-term, low-risk way of financially exploiting parents and students.

The Geography of UX: Why web user experience in Korea is not about the searchbox

Korean internet culture is unique. Or the internet culture of Northern America is not universal.1

User Experience: my definition

If you do an Amazon search for User Experience (UX) you get mostly web design related books. The web has grown so dramatically in the past decade that it is sometimes hard to imagine a time without it. When something becomes such an indispensable part of life as the web has become, it is bound to generate its fair share of frustration. Studying the users’ experience to alleviate the frustration and make a website or a web service function in a more “natural” way, or a more predictable way for the user is one of the main function of this bourgeoning area.

There are many definitions of what User Experience is, but for my purposes I usually define it as:

The art and science of designing satisfying and pleasurable experiences or interactions with an environment, device or a service for the user.

Recently, living in Korea I have stated to think whether user experience differs significantly between cultures – more specifically between Korean and North American culture as these are ones that I have first hand knowledge about.

I was asked the question, what makes Naver success in Korea and not Google? The underlying question is, why do Korean tolerate, or better, enjoy cluttered, chaotic interfaces over simple ones?

The answer is culture. But what of culture?

The Geography of Thought

In the Geography of Thought, psychologies Richard E. Nisbett suggests that there are fundamental difference between Western thinking and Eastern thinking:

In terms of world view:

[page 100] Thus to the Asian, the world is a complex place, composed of continuous substances understandable in terms of the whole rather than in terms of the parts, and subject more to collective then to personal control. To the Westerner, the world is a relatively simple place, composed of discrete objects that can be understood without undue attention to context, and highly subject to personal control. Very different worlds indeed.

In terms of recognition of object and context:

[page 191-192] Differences between Easterners and Westerners have been found in virtually every study we have undertaken and they are usually large. Most of the time, in fact, Easterners and Westerners were found to behave in ways that are qualitatively distinct. Americans on average found it harder to detect changes in the background of scenes and Japanese found it harder to detect changes in objects in the foreground. Americans in general failed to recognize the role of situational constraints on a speaker’s behavior whereas Koreans were able to. The majority of Koreans judged an object to be more similar to a group with which it shared a close family resemblance, whereas an even greater majority of Americans judged the object to be more similar to a group to which it could be assigned by a deterministic rule. When confronted with two apparently contradictory propositions, Americans tended to polarize their beliefs whereas Chinese moved towards equal acceptance of the two propositions. When shown a thing, Japanese are twice as likely to regard it as a substance than as an object and Americans are twice as likely to regard it as an object than a substance. And so on.

In terms of social relationships:

[page 51] Easterners fell embedded in heir in-groups and distant from their out-groups… Westerners fell relatively detached from their in-groups and tend not o make as great distinctions between in-groups and out-groups.

You are what you farm

According to Malcolm Gladwell in his most recent book Outliers, the culture of rice farming in Eastern Asia has a profound influence in the way we make decisions, as opposed to corn or wheat farming in the West.

Working in a rice field is ten to twenty times more labor-intensive than working on an equivalent-size corn or wheat field. Some estimates put the annual workload of a wet-rice farmer in Asia at three thousand hours a year.

Rice farming requires close cooperation with one’s family, neighbors and seasonal farmhands. It needs high level of coordination. It also requires a high level of sensitivity to the rice paddies and external conditions such as weather and pests.

What this process reinforced over thousands of year produces is Korean are naturally accustomed to multitasking and well prepared for informational saturation.

The Traditional Korean House

The traditional Korean house has separate rooms, but these rooms have doors made of paper on a wooden frame. The house also opens up to a public courtyard. Each house usually as a home for 3 generations.

In a Korean traditional house family life is highly relational, deeply involved and lacks privacy. Everyone has a closer relationship to everyone else business within that house.

In terms of the room, each room was multifunctional, used for sleeping, eating, studying and recreation. The room for the head of the family was the largest and called the ?? or the “inner room” and is where the whole family would gather to eat each meal. There are no separate functions such as the dining room or bedroom.

Social reinforcement

Back to Naver. I have neither the time nor the expertise to validate my claim but here’s what I think.

So given these facts we can summarize that Korean are:

  • More likely to be seeking contextual validity than objective truths
  • More social, trusting exclusive in-groups relationships
  • More used to complexity, multi-tasking, multi-functioning and information density

Users are not so much “searching” for knowledge as “validating” knowledge. Googling is an individual activity. Naver’ing is a social activity. Social activity is messy. This could explain the chaos and complexity of their homepage, and users’ preference for it.

Blogging in Korea somewhat validates this claim. Blogging in Korea is not about the expression of personal opinion as much as the reinforcement of public opinion. If you do a Naver search on certain terms it is not uncommon to find the same article in multiple blogs, sometime with attribution to the original author, sometime not. This is called 퍼가기 or drafting, as in drafting water from a well. The well, being pubic, and you are just taking good information and making it more public.

Korean are supremely concerned about what others think. An example is helping my first grade daughter do her homework. If it is an assignment from class, you can turn to, you guessed it, Naver and you can find the “socially validated” answer through Naver 지식인 (Ji-sik-in) or Knowledge-In, which is much like Yahoo! Answers and only about a thousand time more used. It is so used that you can ask the question, “Can someone order me some Chinese food? I am in the hospital and can’t leave my mother’s bedside” and someone would have answered the question within minutes and the food is on its way already (a true story).

Naver Ji-sik-in vs. Wikipedia

Some compare Naver Ji-sik-in with Wikipedia and discuss whether one is more useful than the other. This is missing the point. Both serve totally different functions. Wikipedia is the repository for nuggets of public debated and carefully negotiated knowledge, where as Naver Ji-sik-in is the repository of mostly trivial, however, socially validated knowledge. In this case, a piece of knowledge is more true if it has more people saying the same thing, or if it has more ?? or comments saying so.

Like Google, Wikipedia doesn’t do too well in Korea. In Naver’s Knowledge-In, when you ask a question, you get an answer. In Wikipedia, you add a piece of knowledge and others come and change it, edit it, and sometime delete it all together. Koreans don’t like this kind of confrontation and the process of debate and negotiation that follows. They prefer to say, here’s my opinion, take it or leave it.

Cultural Considerations

Many UX practitioners blindly use methodology imported from North America and translated into Korean. Jakob Nielsen and other usability practitioners over emphasize the usability of search, value of wayfinding and how users are so task-oriented. The whole field of UX is set up to optimize the user experience. The highest values are usability and utility. I’m not arguing that these methodologies are not useful, but there is always a missing chapter in these books. There are major cultural differences and these need to be recognized, explored and taken into consideration.

For example, in choosing a cell phone, usability and utility may be over-valued in the West. In the US there is the famous Verizon ad that has a bespectacled geeky-looking Verizon engineer going to various places saying (annoyingly), “Can you hear me now?” Here, the ad is obviously appealing to the value that reception trumps all other expectations. In my conversations with Koreans, the question is, “예쁘니?” which translated is “Do you think it look good?” Here it’s not just whether I think it looks good, but do others think so too. Highest value here is acceptance, not utility or usability. I have seen users accept and struggle with heinous interfaces simply because the phone makes them look good.

신토불이 (Shin-to-bul-yi) was the slogan adopted by Korean farmers (and political interests) against the opening of Korean agricultural markets to foreign imports. Literally translated it means, “Body and land are not separate”. The meaning explicit meaning for Korean farmers is that Koreans should eat stuff produced locally because our bodies have been acclimated to these foods.

I would tend to agree. I would love to eat high quality homegrown produce except for the fact that in this age of mass production, it tend to be more expensive than imported, and since a good part of what we eat is processed and packaged anyway, people don’t know the difference or don’t care.

I digress. The point being, even with something as seemingly ubiquitous and universal as the internet, regional and cultural considerations matter. In a big way.

User Experience Design in Korea
So does this have implications on how interfaces should be designed in Korea? As much as the Google is different from Naver I would say. As I have tried to propose, the motivations of users may differ due to culture.

Once again, this needs to be validated, but I would think that in Intranet designs in Korea, especially for knowledge repositories, the author, the social context, and comments by others are as important as the piece of knowledge itself. On the task oriented matters, learning how something should be done is as important as how it is actually done. I think you would find few intranets in the U.S. with commenting and strong social features. These tend to be a must in Korean intranets. There is a constant buzz of social activity you’ll be hard to see anywhere else.

KISS in Korea may not necessarily stand for “Keep It Simple Stupid”. It may more appropriately be “Keep It Social, Stupid”.


1. I have talked about Naver and Google based and cultural differences before in my post from Jan 2008, Strategies for Globalizing Korean Websites

Farewell to “Foolish President” Roh Moo-hyun

Koreans paying their last respects before motorcade leaves Seoul. (Photo credit:

Former president of Korea Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2007) died of severe head injuries suffered in a suicide attempt on May 23. Today (May 29) saw his national funeral and cremation. Thousands gathered in the city center to pay their last respects.

I was no supporter of the late President. I didn’t even vote for him since I was in the States at that time. But his death shocked me and truly saddened me.

I’ll say upfront that I do not condone suicide for any reason. But his death does reveal some ugly truths and disturbing trend about Korean society: it has consistently went after its leaderswith a vengeanceafter they leave office.

  • Park Jung-hee (1963-79): We all know his term ended in his assassination. I actually remember crying. I was 10 at the time.
  • Chun Doo-hwan (1980-88): Indicted for embezzlement, corruption and abuse of power. In 1996, he was convicted and sentenced to death for treason and mutiny in his rise to power. Later pardoned
  • Roh Tae-woo (1988-93): In 1996, along with president Chun Doo-hwan, for corruption, indicted treason and mutiny. His sentence of 22 1/2 years in prison was later pardoned.
  • Kim Young-sam (1993-98): Ironically Kim who lead the anti-corruption investigations into this two successors, and in an attempt to reform powerful politically-tied Chaebols, found himself in a corruption scandal that implicated his son.
  • Kim Dae-jung (1993-2003): Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2000. He was later determined to have arranged his much publicized meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, only after an alleged payment (read: bribe) of $500 million. His second son also served 3 1/2 years in prison on charges of bribery.
  • Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008): He was subject to public humiliation as his immediate family and his closest aides were investigated for corruption and bribery.

Let’s put aside for a moment whether justice should be served at any cost. At the heart of the matter is the close link between business interest and political interest. This is what Korea is, right now. The two seems to have a hard time being separated. It’s also obvious media cannot be trusted given its overt political inclinations and biassed reporting. Anyone who goes after the establishment suffers either at the hands of the establishment itself or at the hand of their successors.

Given enough scrutiny and tenacious will to defame and reduce one’s political foe’s influence, there will always emerge something where you can hook the moral and political liability on. Nobody is perfect. Least of all Korean leaders.

Does Korean politics have a heart or the stomach for a forward-thinking visionary leader? No wonder some pine for president Park’s dictatorship years, which revisionist history claims was what laid the foundations for Korea’s incredible economic growth. Ask my father-in-law who worked for the Economic Planning Board, the highest government authority on economic matters, he will tell you it was some smart economic policy coupled with a lot of luck.

Funeral of President Roh Moo-hyun, May 29, 2009

Sign reads: “We are deeply sorry for not protecting you”. (Photo credit:

In her emotional speech at the funeral, Han Myung-suk, Roh’s Prime Minister apologized for not being able to protect the President from such an ending. This is a sentiment that was felt by the millions who came to pay their last respects across the nation at official and makeshift memorials. Those who were not supporters during his presidency, and those even despite being his supporters who were disappointed at Roh by this recent scandal turned out, tearful, resentful, and remorseful at the state of the nation and at not being able to have done more to protect the one they once believed in.

Maybe the self-proclaimed “Foolish President” Roh needed a “Chaney”. Someone who will ruthlessly defend and dog political foes so that the president can be protected, regardless of the fact that the administration’s policies may be misguided. In some way this is why Obama needs Biden. Someone who can navigate the rough and tumble waters of politics while he leads.

The question at the end of the day is can this unfortunate and deeply disturbing event be a catalyst for change? Can Korea’s politics be more focussed on being forward-looking than political in-fighting? Can it be more independent of business-interests? Can Korean politics have a strong social reform agenda equal to its economic growth agenda? Can Korea create socially-driven businesses as much as greed-driven businesses? Can Korea create vehicles for the civil sector to express and operate to initiate change? I truly hope so.

In his book “The Culture Code”, cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille claims that a culture “grows up” only after killing its king. I’m not sure if I agree with this, but let’s hope that this week’s painful lessons and needless death shall help the Korean political system wake-up, and mature a bit more.

Autumn Colors of Korea


Autumn in Namhan-San-Seong

Autumn is by far the most spectacular season in Korea, in my opinion. Since the 70% of Korea is mountainous, the transformation of color is quite dramatic. These photos were taken in Namhan-San-Seong Park, located about half-an-hour from Bundang where I live.

Autumn comes to Nahan-San-Seong
Autumn comes to Nahan-San-Seon

Growing up in Korea, going to visit Namhan-San-Seong always seemed to entail a long road trip to me, but I was shocked to see how close it had become. Seoul has expanded quite rapidly to the South since I last visited, and I now I find Namhan-San-Seong is actually between where I live, Bundang and Seoul itself.

My little ones are oblivious to these memories of Seoul’s past and present of course. As much as they seem permanent, cities do change. Both in our memory and physically.

More photos of Namhan-San-Seong in my Flickr set.

Thoughts on Sustainability or How to Grow Vegetables in the City

Community Garden in Bundang

Community Garden in Bundang, Korea
The sign reads: No gardening. The land is owned by Korea Land Corporation and will soon be sold and developed, therefore any cultivation is forbidden. No compensation shall be made for any damages to illegally cultivated goods. May 2005. – Korea Land Corporation

It is said that what is everybody’s is nobody’s. When something lacks ownership it tends to be abused or neglected.

This long Chuseok weekend, I finally had a little extra time to explore my neighborhood. I live in Bundang, which is one of 5 planned satellite cities (link in Korean) created to house the ever-growing population who work in Seoul. It is one of the better ones with a lot of (interesting) open space running through the rows and rows of mind-numbingly boring monolithic slab apartment blocks. I live in its far corner which ain’t all that bad, at the foot of some nearby hills with hiking paths.

On my walk, I noticed a empty plot of land, where people were growing vegetables, in the adjacent lot next to where my 3 block apartment complex stands. There are signs scattered across the plot which forbid any cultivation. I passed by without thinking too much, but this plot of land lingered in my mind long enough to form a series of questions what bubbled up to consciousness:

1. Why was it empty?

In a place like Bundang, where land is so precious, and high-valued, there must be a good reason why it is empty. According to records, it been zoned for residential development and is owned by the Korea Land Corporation, which is the government organization that developed Bundang. Signs on the land state that it will be developed soon, but it’s dated 2005. I’m not sure why it’s being left intentionally empty.

2. What was happening in this empty plot?

It was being cultivated as a community garden. Elderly residents of the nearby apartment blocks have taken over the land, and have planted all sorts of vegetables used in common Korean cuisine.

3. Why was this happening?

What is interesting here is that a vacuum is being filled not with abuse (e.g. communal trash heap) but with productivity (communal vegetable garden). Koreans, especially elderly ones, have a very strong attachment to the earth. My dad has it. He’s always been fostering a romantic dream of retiring to a house on a small plot of land where he can grow his own vegetables. I have never seen him grow anything in my years as his son.

4. What does it have to do with sustainability?

There are 3 components to sustainable communities in the broadest sense: Economic, Environmental and Social. The environmental is the middle sibling that gets all the media attention, but it cannot exist without its two companions.

In my mind, the example of elderly Koreans appropriating empty land for vegetable growing is on a small scale and example of sustainability in practice. It’s obviously environmentally sustainable. It’s also economically sustainable. Elderly people live on meager stipends, with a fixed income, so these people growing their own vegetables close to home make economic sense. But what is equally important is the social sustainability. No sustainable practice can be truly be sustainable without a strong social component: Growing their own vegetables give elderly people a sense of purpose and self-esteem. They are less apt to nag their kids because they have something to do, and it gives them a good reason to invite friend and family over to enjoy the food, or to invite themselves over, to bring over homegrown vegetable to their no-time-for-real-food kids who are too busy scraping a living together. It also provides a generational bridge for grandchildren to work alongside grandparent, not to mention all the knowledge sharing that occurs between gardeners.

In short, the 3 components together create a loop that enriches lives of all residents. A sustainable community.

I’m wondering why more housing developments don’t just create communal vegetable plots with their communal land, which most often suffers from bad landscaping or in worst cases, just cemented over to lower maintenance. Each resident could be assigned a plot of land in the communal garden. If they don’t care for gardening they can lease their land for a fee or freely to those who do care. It’s like guaranteed parking space.

I never cared much for growing things myself, but I can see why people do. I must be getting old.

Community gardening has been formalized in the US and UK, but from my shallow internet search (Naver, Google), there doesn’t seem to be any formalized grassroots (nice pun!) organizations in Korea as yet.

[update 2008-09-18] Found an entry on Urban Agriculture on Wikipedia (my italics):

Urban farming is generally practiced for income-earning or food-producing activities though in some communities the main impetus is recreation and relaxation. Urban agriculture contributes to food security and food safety in two ways: first, it increases the amount of food available to people living in cities, and, second, it allows fresh vegetables and fruits and meat products to be made available to urban consumers. A common and efficient form of urban agriculture is the biointensive method. Because urban agriculture promotes energy-saving local food production, urban and peri-urban agriculture are generally seen as sustainable practices.

Given that soon 50% of the world’s population will be living in cities, and many of the new residents would have migrated from agriculture, it would seem to make sense for rapidly growing cities to reserve land around the city for agriculture. This would also form a natural buffer to resist urban sprawl and promote density in urban areas.

To feed a city with a population of 10 Million (Seoul, New York etc), you need to import 6000 tonnes of food each day.


In the past couple of days, they (Korea Land Corporation) walled off the community garden in the photo, with a big sign saying it is being leveled to make way for new housing. Inevitable but still sad.

2009-08-03 has an article about the growth of neighborhood farming practices in the US: Urban farming takes root in surprising new ways.