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Posts about the places and people that make up our weekly interactions.

Happy Thanksgiving from South Korea

All the students at school would like to wish you a Very Merry…Thanksgiving! I admit I’m a bit late with this sentiment, as that day of family feasting is likely fading in some people’s memories as Christmas approaches, but the kids are as cute as they were a month ago, so don’t be deterred.

Of course they needed a little prompting to shout, “Happy Thanksgiving,” for the waiting camera, but you may be surprised by just how much they understand about the holiday and its history. The video may not show it, but my first grade students can even rattle off the name William Bradford and spout off a fact or two on the Wampanoag Indian tribe. I suspect that is more than I could say at their age.

Less Bang For North Korean Bucks

Much ado was made this week about North Korea revaluing its currency. The story first caught my eye as a headline on Twitter and, given the near lack of an economy up north I didn’t think much of it, but my curiosity heightened when I saw the Korea Times and the New York Times pick it up. Our stalinist neighbor announced this week that it would drop two zeros from its currency, issue new bills, and limit the amount of the old bills that could be exchanged.

Unsurprisingly, the change was met with harsh criticism. The Wall Street Journal’s Marcus Noland called Pyongyang’s bluff saying it was a decision made not out of sound economic policy, but “yet another stratagem by the central authorities to short-circuit the development of an entrepreneurial class independent of the state.” Other news agencies cited a widespread, chaotic reaction from within the secretive state’s borders.

The problem is not so much the revaluation itself, it is a strategy used by many stable governments to halt bad economic policies of the past and fight runaway inflation. By revaluing the currency “at approximate parity to major currencies such as the dollar or the euro,” the strategy is often used as a tool for citizens to hold their government accountable for their country’s economic performance. That is clearly not what is happening in North Korea. Holding the government accountable for anything is the last thing the North wants its people doing, and instead this was intended to snuff out small, underground entrepreneurs, and preventing people from holding any savings. Noland writes:

Unlike a Turkish or Ghanaian-style reform [two countries who recently revalued their currencies], in which all citizens are encouraged to convert all their holdings of the old currency, the North Korean regime limits the amount of currency that can be converted. This renders excess holdings worthless, and has set off the frenzy this week to get out of old won and into anything else—dollars, Chinese yuan, physical goods—that will maintain value. Any economic “reform” also creates opportunities to parcel out benefits, as with a 2002 price and wage reform that favored the military.

Other sources like the New York Times also commented on the conversion limit as a fault of the program. The government initially only allowed 100,000 ($690, officially, $35 on the black market) to 150,000 won to be exchanged into the new bills, a rule that would “effectively decimate private stores of cash wealth in local currency.” Following this decree several news outlets reported protests in the streets of Pyongyang, and chaos in the public transportation systems as people flocked home and then to their banks in attempt to redeem their new bills, and sell off the rest into something else.

In response to the protests, the North made a reluctant and disingenuous compromise. All citizens are now allowed to exchange all of their savings for the new notes, but the exchange rate will change after the first 100,000 won. According to Daily NK:

“The maximum amount per household which could be exchanged in cash was initially set at 100,000 won, but overnight it increased to 150,000 won, then subsequently a new decree was handed down.”

“According to the new decree, the exchange rate is still 100:1 for 100,000 won, but now the authorities will only permit people to exchange the rest of the money at 1,000:1.”

As a result, if you take 200,000 won in cash to a bank, you get 1,100 won in new denomination bills. This emergency formula will do nothing other than destroy the fortunes of the people. [Quotations taken from NK Daily’s source.]

The overwhelming verdict among news agencies across the world is that the North’s currency valuation scheme is targeted at two things: obliterating any kind of personal wealth, no matter how small, and shutting down any kind of entrepreneurial activity, black market or otherwise. In addition, the South Korean Unification Ministry has yet to issue an official statement on the subject because it is waiting for Pyongyang to first officially announce the unexpected economic activity.

The blog North Korean Economy Watch has a great collection of quotations from and links to international publications covering the revaluation scheme.

Closer Than We Think

Do you ever wake up in the morning, pour some milk into a bowl of cereal, and think, “Hmm, I wonder what on Earth children in South Korea eat for breakfast?” Find the responses to this query and plenty of other  questions about the daily life of a student in South Korea in this video created by fellow teacher Seth Mattern.

Seth is a certified educator in the United States, and after the logistics of international pen-pal projects and video exchanges proved too messy, he created this website with another teacher in Colorado  as a convenient forum for cultural exchange between students the world over.

In addition to this, which I imagine is only the first of many videos to be posted in the future, poke around the website to read some essays by both Korean and American students, and responding comments. If you’re an educator anywhere in the world, and are interested in participating in the site, just send an e-mail and I would be thrilled to put you in touch with the appropriate people. Even if you’re not an educator, I know the kids would love to read any comments and answer any questions you may have.

These students are in fourth and fifth grade and recorded this around 8:00 at night, since they stay at our school until 9. You’ll find that later nights and longer hours spent in schools of all varieties are not the only differences between Korean and North American students. And as for breakfast in Korea, I’ll let the kids speak for themselves, but I suspect many will be surprised by their answers. Enjoy!

An Update on Swine Flu

We were told this week by our Academic Coordinator that in the event we do close, all teachers are expected to come in on Saturdays and Sundays to make up for lost time. Rumors about a government edict closing all the schools abound but we have not heard anything official from the Government.

According to the Korea Times, the government raised its alert status this week, and is stepping up flu prevention strategies:

The country had maintained its “orange” alert status since July 21 but decided to raise it as an average of 8,857 people caught the new flu per day last week, up from 4,420 tallied for the week before. A total of 42 people have died in South Korea from the flu since mid-August.

Government efforts will be focused on coping with serious flu cases and vaccinating about 35 percent of the population as soon as possible to safeguard public health, the ministry said.

I’m just glad I’m part of the public option health plan.

Read: S. Korea Raises Flu Alert to Highest ‘Red’ Level.

Poems from Korean Children

Greg Teacher: A Haiku
Greg is my teacher.
Greg Teacher is very tall.
I like Greg Teacher
My fifth graders collectively

A Limerick About a Cat
There once was a funny cat.
Who was also very very fat.
He went to the vet,
Because he’s a pet.
And now he can hunt for rat.
My fifth graders collectively
Continue reading “Poems from Korean Children”

Korean Family’s Tale of Emotional Reunion

Lee Kyong-hee, 62, tells the story about being reunited, if briefly, with a sister she hasn’t seen since being separated at the end of the Korean War nearly 60 years ago. Lee, her mother (now 100 years old), and other siblings met with their long lost sister at Mount Kumgang in North Korea over the Chuseok holiday.

We had five reunion sessions in total, spending two hours with my sister each time, in addition to a one-hour farewell meeting.

The moment Hye-gyong entered the reunion hall I recognised her immediately even though she looks very different from what I remember about her appearance.

She was 16 years old when I last saw her; she is now 75.

The BBC has her story, and her reflections on the intra-peninsular relationship between the two Koreas and what will need to happen in order for a peaceful reunion to occur:

In helping North Korea I believe the South Korean government shouldn’t expect the situation to change overnight.

Pusan International Film Festival

We took a trip to Busan (or is it Pusan, you decide!) this weekend for the annual International Film Festival. We’re told it is the largest in all of Asia and in the second largest city in Korea. We’ll have more on all of it soon including details and some photos from the Jagalchi Fish Market. Keep your browsers tuned here for all of it this week. As for now, we’re going to bed.

Cheers.

Wooriwa: A Weekend in Pyeongtaek

We left Goyang immediately after work bound to Jinwi station where we were promised a farming experience. So began our farming experience: three hours on public transportation, two backpacks, a couple of sweatshirts and some basic supplies, a guy named William and the promise of a “once in a lifetime experience” somewhere on the outskirts of Seoul; the ones exactly opposite from the outskirts in which we presently reside, to be exact. Continue reading “Wooriwa: A Weekend in Pyeongtaek”

Brief Encounters with Businessmen

Part One:
MOULARD PUZZLE CAFE, ILSAN — I am seated outside piecing together the last of the Starry Night puzzle’s frame. A puzzle cafe is exactly as it sounds, a cafe where you may sip a coffee of something a bit stiffer while assembling a myriad variety of puzzles. The drinks are mediocre, though the beer is at least well priced, but the real draw are the puzzles.I excuse myself to the bathroom and let Danielle try to go it alone in figuring out how to interpret the Thousand Pieces of VanGogh sitting on our table.
Continue reading “Brief Encounters with Businessmen”