Monday, 30 April 2007

Another of "those" weeks

It had been another of "those" weeks, too busy to really get anything done, if you know what I mean. The "highlight" of my week on the purely domestic scene was probably the Seoul Town Hall Meeting, which doubtless tells you a lot about how my week actually was. An applaudable and inspired initiative, but a rather less than inspired execution. I have written more, but you'll have to pick up the KH on Wednesday...

And what exactly is Anne doing with her pen? Click and enlarge the picture.

So when the weekend finally rolled around, there was the choice of stay home and do Korean language class homework and update the blog, or grab the cameras and go out and enjoy the amazing weather. No contest. But now there are hundreds of more photographs to edit and sort into galleries.

One man's music is another's noise pollution. A fact that was brought home to Todd from Phillies on Saturday afternoon.

The Haebangchon community were left scratching their heads when at about 4.30 p.m. they were asked to "turn it down a bit."

A healthy hike up Namsan on Sunday - and it does qualify as a hike if you go direct up through the forest - was another perfect excuse not to study Korean or update the blog.

Hi Seoul Festival activities were in full swing, and we caught these kids having a great time practicing their graffiti talents.

In another last ditch attempt to avoid doing Korean homework, a clean up of the photo archives threw up the following. Thanks to the fluttering flag I actually managed to get this past the "censors" and published in the KH late last year.

How this Itaewon store has managed to get away with it when I get withering looks if I even think this word is beyond me.
And the following I snapped in Beijing last year.

The "no cars" bit is easy enough to understand. But the "no exploding cars" still has me puzzled. This is Beijing after all, not Baghdad.

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Sunday, 22 April 2007

Gloster Valley, "Imni" FTA and Yonsei University

It has been an incredibly busy week, for obvious reasons. But there have been other stories that needed to be covered, and actually they provided a welcome relief. Not least among those other stories was the ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Imjin River. Held at the site of the 1951 battle that pitched about 700 British soldiers against some 27,000 Chinese, the ceremony was as much a celebration of life as it was a solemn occasion to remember the fallen.

A total of 87 British veterans were in Korea for this and other ceremonies throughout the week.

It has been a very odd spring so far, with some rather unseasonal weather hitting the capital.

But rain and high winds did not deter the small band of anti-FTA protesters who gather daily in Gwanghwamun to register their displeasure with the KORUS-FTA signed on April 2nd. The smaller than usual group that gathered on Friday, chanted and sang songs despite the constant chilly drizzle.

A few days earlier on one of the few really "spring" like days, Jenny Hong of the British Embassy was kind enough to give me a guided tour of Yonsei University.

The old-English style buildings set against the cherry blossom of an Asian spring was breathtaking. Many thanks to Jenny for taking the time.

To view the full photo galleries on the above click on the following links:

Anniversary of the Battle of the Imjin River
Yonsei University, April

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Saturday, 21 April 2007

Anniversary of the Battle of the Imjin River

The Battle of the Imjin River took place 22 April25 April 1951 during the Korean War. Chinese Communist forces attacked UN positions on the lower Imjin River in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough and recapture the South Korean capital Seoul. The attack was part of the Chinese Spring Offensive, also known as the Fifth Phase Offensive, whose aim it was to regain the initiative on the battlefield after a successful UN counter-offensive in March 1951 had allowed UN forces to establish themselves close to the 38th parallel.

“Though minor in scale, the battle's ferocity caught the imagination of the world”

The Gloucestershire Regiment which was outnumbered and eventually surrounded by Chinese forces on Hill 235, a feature which became known as Gloster Hill. The last stand of the Gloucestershire Regiment together with other actions of 29th Brigade in the Battle of the Imjin River have become an important part of British military history and tradition. - Wikipedia

Former Ambassador Warwick Morris and Imjin veterans

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Tuesday, 17 April 2007

The BDA's "black money"

Stanley Au, the head of the troubled Banco Delta Asia is now threatening to sue the U.S. Treasury. He also gave a name to and explained why the funds are still in his bank.

MACAU (AP) - ``I believe no money had been taken away from the bank yet ... because they cannot transfer the money out,'' Stanley Au told The Associated Press, referring to the US$25 million (euro18.4 million) worth of North Korean funds that had been frozen at the bank.
``There are no banks accepting the so-called black money,'' he added. ``The only thing they can do at the moment is to take the money in bank notes out of the bank.''
Other banks are apparently worried about accepting funds from Banco Delta Asia that were the center of criminal investigations.

After seeing what happened to Stanley's little bank, it is hardly surprising. I tried explaining the conundrum over the “release” of the funds to a colleague today by using what I thought was a simple analogy.
My colleague was insisting, as was the U.S. administration, that the “ball was in Pyongyang's court,” and there was no reason why the money had not been withdrawn, allowing the next stage of implementation of the Beijing Agreement to go ahead.
I said, imagine releasing a prisoner from a cage in the middle of the desert, with no food or water, with the words, “you are now free to go.”
The U.S. Treasury created the “desert” by blacklisting the BDA. Sure, they set the funds free, but without correspondent banks, and with nobody willing to take the risk associated with accepting a transfer, the money really has nowhere to go.
And let's be realistic, it is simply not reasonable to assume that Treasury did not anticipate this eventuality.

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Yonsei University, April

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Sunday, 15 April 2007

U.S., China disagree over BDA issue

The mainstream media has been carrying banner headlines claiming the more than 18-month drama over North Korean-related funds locked up in the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia has finally been resolved. Again. In fact, this is the second or third time the issue has been "resolved" since the original announcement on March 14.
But again we find ourselves asking the same question, for the second or third time: Has it really been resolved?
According to a spokesperson for the Macau Monetary Authority on Tuesday afternoon, all and any restrictions on the movement of North Korea-related funds held in the BDA had been lifted with immediate effect. "Authorized account holders simply need to come to the bank and arrange for the transfer or the withdrawal of their funds."
Three days after the announcement, there has apparently been no mad dash by account holders to recover their money. The MMA said they have received a number of inquiries from account holders, but no withdrawals or transfers.
The devil, it seems, is in the details. And as any reporter who has been covering the issue since September 2005 will doubtless agree, there has never been anything transparent or simple about the Banco Delta Asia affair.
With the exception of government officials such as Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who was in Seoul this week, and South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, most people with inside knowledge of the BDA issue are keeping tight-lipped or speaking only on condition of strict anonymity. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, that is hardly surprising.
"We have heard the same claims that this has been resolved many times before," said one, adding with more than a hint of sarcasm, "and always there is something new and allegedly unexpected."
After a conspicuous silence, North Korea yesterday finally responded to the reported "availability" of their accounts with a short statement from the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang. The statement said a North Korean financial institution will confirm if the "measure is valid" without offering any details. The statement also said the North remains committed to implement the Feb. 13 agreement, but will move only when the transfer of the funds becomes a reality.
Perhaps their reluctance could be linked to the MMA's almost casual reference to simply "transfer the funds."
"The Banco Delta Asia's U.S. dollar correspondent bank accounts were closed in 2005, which means they can't make dollar transfers or do foreign exchange deals with any other banks to convert the funds to other currencies," said another source, also on condition of anonymity.
"As a consequence," he said, "other banks around the world would be equally reluctant to receive transfers from the BDA while they are still being blacklisted - just like the case of the Bank of China refusing to accept the funds."
The U.S. Treasury's announcement back in March that it had concluded its investigations into the Banco Delta Asia, and that it had no objections to the release of the frozen funds, was welcomed as a long-awaited breakthrough. Made on the eve of the last round of six-party talks in the Chinese capital, it was seen as lifting the final barrier for Pyongyang to begin the next phase of the implementation of the Beijing agreement - the shut-down by April 14 of its main reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
But there was a rather significant little addition to the Treasury's announcement. No American financial institution would be permitted to conduct any form of business with the BDA. Since all U.S. dollar transactions ultimately go through a U.S. bank, this effectively cut the Banco Delta Asia and its U.S. dollar account holders (the North Korean account holders) off from the international banking system. The funds - albeit allegedly now unfrozen - were going nowhere.
"This is a case of the U.S. Treasury giving with one hand, and taking away with the other," said one account holder at the time. "Despite their claims to the contrary, they actually found no evidence of deliberate wrongdoing by the BDA, and this is just an act of spite against a small family-owned bank." It also raised questions about North Korea's future ability to conduct normal international banking operations, and it had far reaching consequences.
The North Koreans reacted by once again boycotting the talks and asserting they would take no part in substantive negotiations or implementation until the funds were verifiably released.
Washington expressed its displeasure but insisted it would do everything possible to facilitate the release of the money.
A senior Treasury official spent two weeks in Beijing negotiating with Chinese and North Korean officials, but left saying they had been unable to find a solution. A few hours later, the U.S. State Department released a statement contradicting the Treasury, and announced a "pathway" had in fact been determined during secret talks between Chris Hill and a North Korean official in New York.
This again raised pointed questions about whether Treasury and State were actually working on the same team, or playing what South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun recently described as "a game where two players secretly gang up to trap a third player."
By Monday, however, the State Department was backpedaling, and referring to the "pathway" in the past tense, as an option that had "had" the potential to work.
There has been no statement or official indication of any links between the failed Treasury talks, the State Department's "pathway" and the Macau Monetary Authority's announcement that the funds are now available to the account holders.
But as was pointed out earlier in this article, the BDA affair has been anything but transparent and simple since Treasury first accused the BDA in September 2005 of being complicit in North Korea's alleged illegal financial activities.
As Washington begins to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang to meet its commitments under the Feb. 13 Beijing agreement, citing the resolution of the BDA issue, the authorities in Beijing and Macau have now begun expressing concerns. China suggested on Thursday the release of North Korean funds blocked in a Macau bank was still not quite resolved.
In a rather astonishing development, given the circumstances, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, "The legitimate and reasonable concerns and interests of all parties should be addressed so we can find a way to properly resolve the issue as soon as possible."
With the deadline for Pyongyang to shut down its reactor at Yongbyon today, that "as soon as possible" obviously isn't going to be soon enough.

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Thursday, 12 April 2007

Uncertainty over release of BDA funds

The announcement by the Macau Monetary Authority that some $25 million in North Korean related funds held in the Banco Delta Asia would be released with immediate effect is being met with some skepticism by analysts who have been following the issue.
The United States is claiming that the financial dispute that has stalled North Korea's implementation of the Feb. 13 Beijing Agreement has been fully resolved, and there is now no obstacle to the North acting on its promise to shut down its nuclear programs.
But sources familiar with the so-called "technical issues" that have held up the transfer of funds from the BDA are not so confident. They have told The Korea Herald that while actual details are still scarce, getting the funds out of the BDA and out of Macau may not be quite as simple as Washington apparently considers it to be.
Questions remain, they say, about how North Korean customers of the BDA can actually transfer their balances out of the bank if the BDA remains cut off from the global financial system.
"The BDA's own U.S. dollar correspondent bank accounts were closed in 2005, which means they can't make dollar transfers or do foreign exchange deals with any other banks to convert dollars to other currencies," one source told The Korea Herald on condition on anonymity.
"As a consequence," the source said, "other banks around the world will be equally reluctant to receive transfers from the BDA while they remain blacklisted - just like the case of the Bank of China refusing to accept the funds."
The only possible alternative being offered at this point, some observers say, is to withdraw the money in cash and carry it away in suitcases. But they point out this is certainly not a normal or even desirable way of doing business.

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Who you going to call?

You're a teacher. Your school or hagwon has just blatantly broken the terms of your contract. After 11 months of dedication and stellar service, the director suddenly accuses you of being a bad teacher, among other things, and gives you your marching orders. He then cheerfully tells you he has contacted immigration, he won't give you a letter of release, and by the way, you have 14 days to get out of town.
Who do you call?
You may be tempted to call The Korea Herald - plenty of teachers have - but the Seoul Help Center is actually your best bet. Or you could try the Labor Department. They have an English language website and there are various other resources on the internet. But if you are determined to fight this through to the bitter end to assert your rights, be prepared. You are holding very few cards and the deck is stacked against you.
First off you have to know your "enemy." Frankly speaking, the hagwon sector has become just too big and too influential. According to some estimates, Korean students spend over 15 trillion won ($16 billion) a year in private English classes. This is based on 11.2 million students spending an average of 1.2 million won a year for classes in hagwons or private English teachers. Korea spent the most on private education in 2006 among the 30-member OECD, accounting for 2.9 percent of GDP.
Given the lack of oversight, the sector has become a cash cow for criminals - or the criminally inclined - and archaic labor laws just make it so easy for them to use, abuse and discard what is essentially a limitless supply of witless and gullible foreigners in search of their "Asia experience."
Obviously, the number of hagwons who do engage in illegal or unfair practices against their teachers are in the minority. But they are a very significant minority.
If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself the victim of breach of contract, then you have to consider your immediate financial situation. If you are short on cash, then to be perfectly honest, in the majority of cases the best advice is suck it in, take it on your chin, and go home.
Sounds tough, doesn't it? Sounds so unfair and even stupid when you consider how harmful this can be to the good image that Korea works so hard to create through its Korean Wave, its cultural exchanges, and its bids to host major events such as the Winter Olympic Games.
But you may be surprised to learn that you are not alone in this frustration. There are plenty of Koreans who feel exactly the same way.
It may also come as a surprise that among the most "frustrated" are junior and mid-level officials at the Labor Department who have to deal with foreign complainants on a day-to-day basis.
"I am so, so sorry," an official at the Labor Department in Uijeongbu said to The Korea Herald. "I see so many foreign English teachers here, but because of the laws, sometimes they blame us and get angry with us."
So, you have lodged your complaint and have been awarded a hearing before a Labor Department inspector. Getting to the office in Uijeongbu is trial enough: an hour on the subway from City Hall in downtown Seoul, and then a 6,000 won taxi ride from the station.
You are tense; the lousy traffic from the station to the office has you on the verge of exploding. You are so anxious to make a good impression. You are sure you gave yourself enough time to get there, but every traffic light is red and the local council chose that day to dig up the road.
Still, you arrive with minutes to spare. Then you are told no representative from the school has shown up. They haven't called the department to ask for a rescheduling and they certainly haven't called you. They just didn't bother to show up. And why should they?
The law, as it stands, does not compel a hagwon director or his representative to attend a Labor Department hearing. They can ignore the notice to attend a hearing with no penalty whatsoever. In fact, they get three opportunities to fail to attend. They have "the freedom" to do this, the official said.
"It they don't come, then we send them a letter with another date for the hearing," the Labor official told The Korea Herald. The Labor Department does not even have the right to ask why the director did not attend, or demand the courtesy of an apology.
"They know they can do this, the bad ones, and they abuse the system," the official said. After three non-appearances the case is referred to the prosecutor's office.
"But then, even if they are found guilty, the fine is so small it is nothing to them," the official explained, "and often the teacher has already left the country because the process takes so long."
If the teacher leaves Korea before the case goes to the prosecutor, then the whole thing is dropped. "All the director has to do is wait," the official said, "it is so easy for them to win."
And with the paltry fines handed out by the prosecutors, the hagwons win even when they lose.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Labor Department inspector assigned to any particular case may appear disinterested, unenthusiastic and perhaps even unhelpful. In many cases, it is a pointless, and certainly thankless, process.
The law, the official insisted, needs to be changed. Hagwon directors need to be held accountable, and the fines for any wrongdoing have to be significant enough to prevent any repeat offenses and serve as a warning to others, the official told The Korea Herald.
"Korean teachers sometimes also face this problem in hagwons," the official said, "but they usually have family support here and obviously have the time to fight the case." So for foreigners, the official told The Korea Herald, the process needs to be sped up.
So what do you do when faced with this reality?
Lodge your complaint with the Labor Department, and armed with a certificate that you are involved in a dispute with your employer, immediately head off to the Immigration Department. If you get to them before your hagwon director, they will put a hold on your visa so you can remain here to fight the case.
The next move should be to contact your embassy and alert them to your status, and the fact that you may require financial assistance. They can help in putting you in contact with family and friends back home and facilitate the transfer of money. But don't expect any handouts, because you won't be getting any.
And then call The Korea Herald. We love a good story.

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Sunday, 8 April 2007

Left behind in the eleventh largest economy

The scene greeting visitors arriving by rail in the capital of the world's eleventh largest economy can be something of a shock.

The area around the old Seoul Station is home to scores of vagrants and alcoholics. Not quite the best first impression from "The Soul of Asia."

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Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Oh, what a surprise!

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn, according to high level diplomatic sources, that North Korea is unlikely to meet the deadline to shut down its reactor at Yongbyon.

Those funds stuck in the Banco Delta Asia are still proving to be a stumbling block to progress.

It is easy to say 25 million dollars is small change, so give it up. But if you can't trust folks on the pennies, how can you trust them with the big bucks?

The report on the BBC site is short and pretty much to the point.

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