Current Events in South Korea

The first, and most important, piece of news in the past week or so has been the sinking of the warship Cheonan. Late Friday night, March 26th, the warship Cheonan suffered some severe damage, split into two pieces, and sank. The general feeling is that North Korea is involved. At the language exchange this morning, I asked my partner about it and he feels fairly certain North Korea sank the ship with either a mine or torpedo, but the South Korean government is resistant to issue an official statement blaming North Korea because it could lead to war.

To make things worse, while 50 some sailors were rescued at the scene, another 45 or so sailors have been missing since the ship sank. Initial reports stated it would be possible for the sailors to live 60-70 hours in water tight chambers in the interior of the ship, but after a week it seems bleak. To further exacerbate things, weather conditions are terrible, which severely hindered the rescue operation. In fact, ten men have died in the past week just trying to locate the missing sailors. The first was a military diver that died on Tuesday after losing consciousness underwater. The man, Han Joo-ho, is being hailed as a national hero. Han wasn’t ordered to dive at the scene of the wreck, but was just an instructor at the naval diving school that volunteered to help with the rescue mission. I didn’t find a news story for the latest event, but my Korean partner at the exchange told me that last night a boat with nine rescue members sank, and all of them perished. The rescue operations have officially been halted, after a request from the families of the missing sailors, to prevent further sacrifice of life in a now seemingly pointless search.

Some news articles:

I mentioned that in South Korea it’s pretty common for funerals to be filmed and photographed. The funeral of the first diver that died was on TV Saturday night during the news. It was a very extravagant funeral, and high ranking military officials from South Korea and America were present, including the South Korean president. It was extremely hard to watch. When it comes to funerals, South Koreans are not at all ashamed to weep openly. It was really hard to watch footage of the man’s family wailing, drooling, hanging on the coffin as it was being carried away…

Right after segments about the sinking of the Cheonan and the diver’s funeral, there was footage from another funeral. At first I thought perhaps one of the missing sailors had been found dead, but it became apparent that it was something else entirely. First of all, not only did they tell the person’s name, but they were naming all of the people that were at the funeral. I eventually recognized a couple from Korean music and TV. The man who had died was a celebrity.  Here, celebrities are gigantic. I think it’s kind of an all or nothing thing. If you’re famous here, you’re an A-list star that’s everywhere. Movies, TV, music, ads, etc… And if you’re not famous, you ain’t shit. There’s no D-list. No Korean Kathy Griffins. Again, the funeral footage was extremely hard to watch. Everyone was completely distraught. The sheer number of celebrities that seemed to know him was astounding. At the language exchange I asked about it, and everyone knew immediately who I was talking about. Turns out the story is quite a sad one.

The actor’s name was Choi Jin-Yeong. He was only 38 and an established star in Korean TV and movies. Not only had he died, but he committed suicide. Just last week, on March 29th, he was found hanging in his apartment in Seoul. To add to the sorrow, this came only a year and a half after his sister, Choi Jin Sil committed suicide by hanging in her apartment in Seoul. If her brother was a huge star, Jin-Sil was off the charts popular. She was seen as the face of Korean media. She represented the entire country. Absolutely gigantic celebrity in South Korea. She was so popular that ten months after her death, someone actually stole her urn and ashes from her burial site. The criminal was caught and the ashes found, but it demonstrates the kind of mania around her. They were the only two children in the family, so their parents have to deal with their children killing themselves within a year and a half of each other. The cherry on the top is that Jin Sil had two young children, who Jin-Yeong became the legal guardian of after his sister’s death. Now the children will be raised by their grandparents, I assume.


In lighter news, my Saturday was a pretty good one. After my blog I went walking and accidentally climbed a mountain. I was considering going back to take pictures, but I’ll leave that for next weekend. It was pretty amazing up there. Hiking is a very common hobby for South Koreans, so I saw quite a few people up there, most of them elderly. Climbing mountains is just one of the normal daily routines for the old South Korean men and women.

The language exchange was good. I got to practice introducing myself in Korean. Where I’m from, when I got to Korea, my birthday/age, where I work, my job, etc… and then we spent some time just going over the three ways to ask “What”. Chang-gi was my partner again and he’s really cool. He changed his English name to Russel after his friends told him that Vito doesn’t fit him because it sounds too harsh. This prompted a discussion about Russel Crowe, A Beautiful Mind, my film minor, etc…  Anyway, he took me to E-mart after the meeting because I wanted to buy big bags of candy. I’m going to try my hand at bribing my students into participating. He also said that learning in Korean classrooms is generally less active, so kids may just not be used to constantly answering questions. He’s a really friendly guy. I asked him about how he felt about North Korea, about why some Koreans may not like Americans, etc… He also said that perhaps next weekend he could go hiking up the mountain with me and go to his home to meet his wife and have samgyeopsal. Don’t mind if I do.


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