Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Cancer of corruption

This post is more to remind myself, however it is obviously free for all to see.

An interesting little article appeared in the JoongAng Ilbo over the weekend. A publishing company decided to come out with an "authoritative" restaurant guide for Seoul. The key word here for the company is "authoritative" as they want the guide to be to the Seoul restaurant scene what Zagat is for New York.

Thats all fine in theory, however it runs smash-up against "Korean Culture" as some of the more enthusiastic apologizers like to call it. It simply works likes this:

Foreigner: "Isn't that dishonest"
Enthusiastic Local: "Well you just don't understand Korean Culture"

This was seen more recently in the start of the storm over Hwang Woo-suk and his procurement of egg cells. The conversation went as above, but with the foreigner saying "Isn't it unethical for junior researchers to donate eggs due to the potentials for abuse by their superiors". The answer was the same "Well you do not understand Korean Culture." In the end though, the locals had a point (well until this week anyway), the research got done and the advance was made. To use potential use a malapropism, "to make an omelet you need to break a few eggs."

In the wake of this, I want to bring back this "authoritative" restaurant guide idea. This is an idea who's time has come, considering Seoul's 12+ million people, its wish to appear "dynamic", and its wish to be the hub of at least something. However as I said the dream smashes against Korean culture, specifically the history of paying for favorable coverage. In short this article is a perfect microcosm of the problem.

On one hand you have the "Culture" of companies paying for favorable coverage from newspapers. This is not done as an obvious paid advertisement or a specifically marked section of the paper. This is done normally as normal articles. I remember with some glee about a rather lavish review about a BMW  juxtaposed on the other side of the page of an op-ed piece calling for more responsible journalism. I shot coffee out my nose that day.

Then you have the "Culture" of restaurants paying for favorable reviews. For a while now I have been pressuring a friend of mine to savage a restaurant his publication reviews just so they can gain credibility. He points out that all the restaurants they review are advertisers, making them mad is not good for future ad sales. Second, he notes, his publication and investors do not really want to hear from an irate restaurant that makes noise because it feels like it was singled out. To take another example, it is the restaurants who pay to be featured in all those glossy food TV shows with the annoying graphics, stupid grade-b celebrities, and enough recorded "OOOOOHs!" to make you want to throw your shoe at the TV.

So put these together an you have a perfect microcosm of the problem. Here you have a woman, chances are, paying to be in newspaper so something nice is said about her book. In turn, this woman is, chances are, accepting payment so the restaurants can be sure to get a high rating in the book. Even if this is not going on, "Korean Culture" makes me think this is a high possibility.

The ultimate problem, and why I want to record all this somewhere, is that this "Culture" makes what the woman says she wants to do, to create an authoritative restaurant guide to Seoul, an almost impossible task. Criticism can be seen as possible sour grapes for not paying enough, and lavish complements can be seen as possibly doing what is required for the money given. Er go all criticism is tainted, none of it is seen an honest, nobody knows what really is bad and what really is good, and finally you have the stagnation of the restaurant culture in Korea.

Welcome to "Dynamic Korea"


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