The Problems With South Korean Education

For one day a year the entire peninsula of South Korea comes to a screaming halt.  For one day a year elementary and middle schools open late, airports and train stations change their schedule, post offices and government buildings, the stock exchange remains closed until after 10am, losing the country a bob or two and police are ordered to escort any delayed student to his/her school.  A population of almost fifty-million stays locked up and off the road for up to three hours.  This is the day that nothing is allowed to stop the countries high school students getting to their final exam, an exam that determines whether they make it into university or not. Whether they become a have-not or a never-had, a dreamer, a worrier, a beggar or another victim who takes his own life in some dark dingy basement.  This day is the most important day in life.

With 80% of Korean students expecting to get into a university the competition is intense.  Other countries seem to weather this event much more easily.  The options available are still the same, Korea offers a huge range of courses to cater to almost any candidate, but it is for those positions which will hand its recipient an almost guarantee of a stable and prosperous life that is most at stake.  Those relatively few placements for prestigious universities like Seoul National etc., are the ones that become like the golden ticket to these poor suffering little sots.  So what can the country do to make it feel even terrifying?

The authorities think that by closing down all other businesses and organisations and threatening those who have no need to venture out during these precious hours is helping, but this of course can only add to the stress and fear that these already uptight and exhausted kids are going through.  Knowing that the streets are like a ghost town because nothing is allowed to stop you getting to your exam will only intensify the significance of it all, and that won’t do anyone any favours!  The students are smart enough to know, I hope, that they know that getting into university is important, they know what’s at stake, they’ve been studying since they were two-years old.

The education in Korea is like no other in the world.  Students rise early and study late, some working more than eighteen hours a day, not including the hours they put in doing their homework.  The government sees this as progress and what needs to be done to compete on the world stage, it has after all grown from being one of the poorest countries during the 1960s to now being the 13th largest economy in the world.  But that growth was primarily down to an increase in mass production, cheap labour and industry, not in the fields that many potential university students hope to study in, namely Law, Medicine and Diplomacy.  These branches of education are considered the most affluent above all else.  Using your brain so that you don’t have to use your hands; getting someone else to do the manual whilst you sit and watch and reap the rewards of your accountancy firm, law practice or dental clinic etc.  The parents pray that their sprog will succeed, some bowing mindlessly three-thousand times in Buddhist temples or churches in the hope that their God will hear their pleadings and bargainings over all others who are stood by your side, but there can only be one winner and that is the one who employees these young upstarts and forces them to work every hour of every day for a little sparkle of silver and the promise of a day-off when their grandfather kicks the bucket.

All this stress, hope, praying, yearning and begging to get into an average university to study something you have no interest in really, to then get a job where you will bossed around by someone who sees you as just another drone willing to do his bidding and be told that your weekends are in his pocket because he is your supervisor and he wants to go off singing with his little concubine.  So, what’s the hope?

Don’t be told what to do or which field to apply in, this is your life, your future, you’ll regret spending twenty years behind a desk with nothing to show apart from insufferable piles and the constitution of someone twice your age.  Don’t listen to those family members who say what you want is beyond your talents and is impossible in this country.


Alcoholic Drinking Stamps

Nothing can cause more regret than a nasty hangover.  That moment when you stir and pull those rotten infested bed sheets away from your putrid breath and inhale the stale air that has been lingering around you for many an hour.  That sudden hammering inside your head, that dry fury texture on your tongue and those aches and pains that suggest you may have ran a marathon last night, but you were too buggered to remember a single step.


It was two in the afternoon when I woke from one such hangover and unfortunately, two days later, I can still feel it.  Two nights of restless sleep probably haven’t contributed to my recover, but I can’t help think that if I hadn’t sunk that tenth beer or if I hadn’t been so eager to please those around me I wouldn’t have sent that Jagermeister concoction to the bottom of my liver.  Like Hydrochloric acid it burnt and skinned and tore apart my gut lining and I now have the sneaking suspicion that I ventured to a fast-food restaurant that collaborated to my downfall, like Hitler in April, 1945 I should have counted my blessings and fled. 


Always do sober what you said you would do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.’ Ernest Hemingway,


            The next morning I regretted the whole evening and wished I stayed inside.  But I was pointed to some of the promises I had made that evening, promises I had let slip.  I had promised to meet someone for breakfast and when asked whether I would, by my girlfriend, I responded that if I was in this state then heaven only knows what sort of situation he was going to be in.  He was after all the ‘friend’ that had bought the damn Jager and forced me, yes, forced me to drop into a half of beer and then gulp it down.  I could assume he was going to have trouble recalling his name let alone a half-assed appointment with some guy he hasn’t seen in months.  At the time there were high fives for our plans, we felt proud that after meeting one another so abruptly and out-of-the-blue we had made solid plans for the next morn, only the next day there was more chance of finding Lord Lucan under my mattress playing bridge.  I couldn’t move, I wouldn’t move.


            There have been numerous occasions when I have promised to meet and do things that when drunk seem like the most fun a soul could ever entail, but always have I ended up with my head under a pillow.  I wouldn’t think I’m an alcoholic, that is out of the question, although I am well aware that by saying I am not puts me into that group that are.  In fact I would like to see alcohol go the way of food stamps, we should get communistic about the booze, limit those who drink too much and push those that don’t drink enough.  Both groups of people need the push or the pull.  I think every week each person should be handed a number of stamps and if he has used them all he is unable to procure any liquor.  In my Orwellian world those who are stone sober with be forced to have a tipple, a prerequisite.  My argument for that is simple.  Whenever I have ventured out there has always been that teetotal tosser who takes the upmost delight in looking down on those who confuse their Ss from their Ts as if he were passing judgment like prophet.  It’s easy to deduce that it is not the drunkards who are starting all the fights, it’s those who are abstinent that probably begin the ‘ten-paces-at-dawn.’   And because their head isn’t spinning they have the advantage, so whenever the police arrive it is always the drunk that gets picked up and arrested whilst Mr. Clean has already arrived back at home and eating a bowl of cereal.  Limiting the booze will put everyone on the same playing field, they’ll be no being late, no making plans that no one ever plans on keeping, no waking up next to someone who looks at you like you were a gone-off piece of meat and I wouldn’t be still feeling so rotten forty-eight hours later after having really not that much in the way of booze.


Busan International Film Festival

(as published in Gwangju News Oct 2011)

The 16th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF, formally PIFF) is to commence from the 6th to the 14th of October. With over three hundred films to be showcased, this makes it the largest film festival on the continent. There is hope that this year’s event will surpass last year’s record-breaking jamboree. Film producers and directors from seventy countries around the world will present their work to an international throng of guests, critics and spectators. Visitors will be able to watch an assortment of movies from all four corners of the globe and to rub shoulders with first-time directors who will be exhibiting their world to a public that has seen its movie industry grow from strength to strength since the first festival back in 1996. The festival has now become one of the premier movie occasions on the Asian calendar. The success of last year’s event in which a total of 182, 046 people attended featuring a festival-best 153 premiers has seen tickets snapped up quickly as movie-goers look to get their hands on the best seat in the house.

For many decades there wasn’t much to write about in regards to an Asian movie scene. The Hollywood movies that flooded the silver-screens were what were popular and the Asian films were always considered somewhat baffling and frequentlt lacklustre. Additionally they would provide little revenue for their directors, their actors and their crew; it was difficult ever seeing this situation improve. At least that was the way most saw this scene.  But as audiences began to grow tired of the run-of-the-mill repetitive ‘box-office bonanzas’ and began to look for something that had a little more depth in its characters with a storyline that had more absorption than a wet sponge. Soon Hollywood directors and producers began getting inspiration and ideas from a plethora of distinctive and creative sources in the east. Eventually World cinema began to take-off.


With so many movies being shown at BIFF this October, it can be difficult to pick the crass from the classic, the banal from the brilliant and the trite from the terrific, but a few recommended by those ‘in the know’ include any of the screenings by Hong Kong writer, producer and director Yonfan. The special programme dedicated to his work will include A Certain Romance (1984), Double Fixation (1987), Promising Miss Bowie (1990), In Between (1994), Bishonen (1998), Peony Pavilion (2001), and Colour Blossoms (2004).

The opening movie Always (2011) by Korean director Song Il-gon tells of a love story between an ex-boxer and his partner. This slow unraveling story with sweeping long shots has made this an interesting choice for the opening slot with mixed reviews from across the board.

From Japan come a number of movies, but one in particular has been chosen to be the closing number.  Chronicle of My Mother by Masata Harada is a piece about a successful writer Kosaku Igami who takes in his ailing mother in when his father dies. After years of anger towards her for sending him away during his childhood he is suddenly forced into taking care of her and discovering the truth behind those earlier times.

The festival is renowned for exhibiting new work by directors from around Asia and one of its few awards that are handed out every year is the ‘New Current’ award. Often the winner of this award will go on to further success.  Last year’s The Journals of Musan, by Park Jung Bum went on to feature in movie theatres across parts of Western Europe and North America.  It told the story of a North Korean defector that struggled to find work in the South after fleeing. Nominees this year include; Choked by Kim Joong-hyun, a Korean movie; Damn Life by Japanese director Kitagawa Hitashi; Lost in Mountain by Chinese director Gao Zipeng and Return to Burma by Midi Z, which tells the story of a man who returns to his home country that has been closed off from the outside world and how he seeks to find a new life for himself while grappling with a society that hasn’t progressed. The government of Rangoon gave director unparalleled access to shoot in the country.

Being the biggest film festival in Asia has meant that the venues for the event has had to be updated and this festival will see the inaugural opening of the new Busan Cinema Centre in Centum City, near Haeundae. A nine-storey high building housing three screens seating 413 in the largest and 213 in the smaller two, plus another 4000-seater screen outside will put the audience into the action. This venue will be hosting the opening and closing celebrations of the event. The majority of the screenings will take place within the area with the Shinsegae Department store’s (the biggest store in the world…) CGV hosting a bountiful selection as well.

Tickets are moderately priced, starting at 6000won for a general seat, 8000won for a 3D movie (a film festival wouldn’t be the same now would it…?) 20,000won for the opening and closing pictures and the special ‘Midnight Passion,’ where you can watch three movies back-to-back for 10,000won. To pre-book your ticket using credit card you need to go to and for cash, visit the nearest Busan Bank. This is probably the simplest option.


By David Holt


There is a lot of information on the Official BIFF website at

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Gwangju World Music Festival (published in Gwangju News Aug 11)

(Gwangju News Aug 2011)

The Gwangju Music World Festival (GWMF) will be returning for its second year this August. From the 26th to the 28th residents of Gwangju will be able to visit one of several locations around the city and listen to some fascinating music from the four corners of the globe. The event, which is being funded by the Korean government is in an attempt to booster the interest in World Music in Korea. Du-yong Jung, one of the main organisers behind GWMF, says that “[Gwangju Festival is] to teach people about differences of music and dance.”
Between thirty and forty acts are set to appear from over fifteen countries and the organisers hope to emulate the turnout of last year’s festival by topping the twenty-thousand mark. As well as the ‘World Music’ there will be a number musical workshops standing by to enlighten those who know little about this alternative scene.
In preparation for this occasion the organisers had put together a small teaser turnout a few weeks back.
On July 2 in Geumnamno Park, Gwangju, GWMF arranged a “pre-concert in hope of rustling up interest for the main event. So on a sticky hot Saturday evening roughly three to four hundred revellers turned up and packed in to see Cameroonian ‘Erik Aliana & Korongo Jam’ as well as Korean ‘Sunday Klaxons’ perform – the latter seemingly entertaining the crowd the same way a drunk uncle would entertain at a wedding, by waving their arms around and shouting, “whoop, whoop, whoop!”
Both groups are due to play at the main staging in August, with Eric Aliana being a possible festival highlight. On that Saturday evening though he managed the nigh-on impossible; getting a rather sleepy gathering of Koreans out of their chairs and singing about the struggles of Africa. Even the ‘ajumma’ with high waste trousers who had stood motionless throughout was now up dancing like apartheid was only just ending.
Speaking to organiser Mr Du-yong before the show he spoke of how the majority of the Korean music is governed by an “idol” society, but he believes that such festivals as these can really enlighten people and show that there is still other kinds of music out there.
“If people experience world music, like fusion music, such as Korean traditional and pop, [then] people will become more interested.”
World Music will have to try a lot harder to be popular in Korea than in other countries around the world. The pop industry here doesn’t have much time for alternatives in music, they are considered ‘niche’ and not profitable, so therefore the real talent gets moved aside.
With so many K-pop groups saturating the market and deadening the principles of artistry, this festival, which has sort to invite performers from around the world, is really a testament Korea’s efforts of trying to diversify its culture. World music is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but according to Du-yong giving the people the opportunity to at least give it a listen is paramount to the genre’s ethos.
“We can only consider ‘idol’ music in Korea, only girl and boy groups. We don’t get the chance to experience world music. Our festival is a very good chance to hopefully experience this.”
With so many different musicians taking the stage throughout the three-day event there is sure to be something for everybody’s taste.
According, the official website for the August show, it lists a number of acts that are set to appear.
Playing on the Main-Stage – Chomdan Ssanggam Park, are such artists as Tiempo Libre, a Grammy nominated Cuban band that is based out of Miami, Amazigh Kateb, a North African singer who has become a prominent artist in both the French and Algerian music scene. There are many more groups such as Omara Mactar Bombine, Altan Urag, Regina Carter “Reverse Thread, a classically trained jazz violinist and Nguyen-Le, a Vietnamese Parisian guitarist whose set, along with Ms Carter’s, will see out the closing night on Sunday.
Nguyen-Le, has seen how the ‘pop idol’ mentality can take over a country’s music industry, but he believes that events such as these can help merge pop with more traditional music in the hope to make it perhaps more soulful and passionate.
“I know Jazz and World music are new and small in Asian countries. I can compare [the music scene] with Vietnam from where I just came back. There is a big market for pop idols too. I was invited to play with local musicians and Tung Duong, a famous young pop singer. The experience came as one of the most exciting and exhilarating of my life and the welcoming in the medias was incredible.”
Whether you know much about traditional Korean music, World Music or you just like being amongst a large crowd on a summer’s evening, it is certainly worth a visit.

For more information check out (it is in English)

Story & interviews by David Holt
For more stories please visit or follow on twitter: #DavidAndrewHolt

Artist Profile: Nguyen-Le
Born in Paris to Vietnamese parents, Nguyen-Le began his life painting and drawing, but at the age of 15 he surprised his parents by becoming a self-taught musician. His main focus was Jazz, but he also sort to fuse his music with other genres from around the world. In 1995 he released “Tales of Viet-Nam,” an album in which he started to integrate a selection of world music elements with ethnic musicians in his music. The album has been occasionally compared with Miles Davis’ – “Kind of Blue.”

Put a Sock In It

Ryan Giggs

Image via Wikipedia

(published in Gwangju News – July)

page 34

British footballer Ryan Giggs, one of the finest footballers the UK has produced recently got harangued recently across the press for trying to cover up an alleged extra martial affair.

A ‘super-injunction’, a legal gagging order that not only prevents the media from reporting a story, but also blocking any attempts to mention that there is even an injunction in place, was brought out across all media.  The Manchester United’s winger reportedly paid vast sums of cash to money hungry lawyers to muzzle all newspapers, television and radio, plus any website in the UK public domain from mentioning anything.

Off the record journalists that had known for some time about famous celebrities who used their bloated bank accounts to fend off newspapers from delving into their lives became powerless to cover it.

You may ask who gives a damn about Z-list celebrities getting caught having sex at two in the morning and whether we, the public have a right to know about it.  You’re probably right, we don’t need to know about it, but that misses the point.  The super-injunction can do real damage for the public at large when stinky rich businesses do activities that unfairly attack or hinder the weak and uninformed then knowing block the free press from reporting anything about it.

Take Trafigura, back in 2009, the multi-national energy supplier brought out a super-injunction against the UK’s Guardian newspaper.  The paper had planned to report that the company was dumping vast quantities of toxic waste off the Ivory Coast.  But before it went to press Trafigura contacted Carter & Ruck, an aggressive, London based law firm and quickly danced off to the High Court to impose a blanket on the piece.  If the newspaper planned on releasing even a whiff of the story they would face drastic repercussions including imprisonment, seizure of assets and be made to watch ‘I’m America’s Next Top Toxic Barren’.

It looked like the British legal system, which has come under scrutiny for several years for being a honey pot for large corporations, with its libel and defamation laws would continue to help out the corporate heavyweights, but thanks to a bit of tradition and a bit of the new, the article did eventually come out.

Parliamentary Privilege, a UK law dating back hundreds of years gives an Member of Parliament (MP) the right to discuss any matter he considers in the public interest in the House of Commons and for that to be freely reported in the press.  MP Paul Farrelly used his privilege and spoke up about the injustice.  This plus as the Internet becomes a borderless horizon such whistle-blowing sites such as Twitter and, which are not governed by any restrictive ‘legal’ guidelines and therefore can write whatever the hell they like.  So with all their billions in the bank and thousands of lawyers on its books, heavy-handed institutions can be made to confess with just a strong minded government minister and one-hundred and forty words message.

(This was published in the July issue of Gwangju News, a magazine run by ex-patroits in Gwangju, South Korea

By David Holt

The Hope For British Newspapers

The News of the World, a newspaper with over 2.5m readers, has been part of the British way of life throughout its lifespan.  It has brought sleaze, titillation, filth and above all scandal to our Sunday mornings.  For almost a 150 years it has brought sleaze, scandal and outrage to people’s Sunday breakfast, but, as of the 10th of July 2011 the newspaper will end its publication over the phone-hacking scandal that has seen its advertisers run for the hills like a donkey from a Chinese abattoir.

The newspaper will see its doors close and its keys handed over to Scotland Yard who will begin to sift through all the databases and private emails, ledgers, documents and rubbish bins in the hope to bring to justice those who sort to illegally obtain information by listening to private voicemail messages.  From celebrities to members of the Royal Family, from victims of appalling crimes to soldiers of senseless wars. 

So the question is, where will people go now to get their fill of outrage.  Unlike America, which has the National Enquirer, a publication so bereft of facts and realism that it makes ‘Snow White’ look like the movie ‘Monster’ with Charlize Theron.  But in the UK a good percentage of people enjoy nothing more than reading about celebrities getting their fingers caught in another’s backside over their burnt toast.  Because while some of the facts were loosely fitted together at the best of times, we knew deep down that the stories did have some original content and more importantly, the sots who were the subject of the allegations were always people that came low down on people’s lists of popular persons, such as any footballer and/or pedophiliac pop star; Pakistani cricketers or Prince Harry.  Publicly we would openly condone these stories, saying: ‘You’d never catch me reading such twaddle,’ yada, yada, yada!  But privately we all flicked through those pages like a heroin addict with a crispy £20.

It is suggested that the News of the World is as British as fish ‘n’ chips or damp summers. And its true the British do like a good gossip, it is part of the ‘over-the-fence’ housewife culture that followed after the Second World War, when neighbours needed to be vigilant against ‘the common enemy.’  It is just an evolutionary path, but unfortunately the lines between heresy gossip and going through another’s private phone messages to get information have now been so ruined that the whole newspaper industry will have to be almost remodelled to stop such outrageous practices in the future.

On the larger scale too this affects every newspaper, especially those under the Murdoch ‘News Corp’ blanket, because with the Internet and social websites gaining more and more readers through blogs and other postings, this sort of scandal reiterates their belief that the industry is in rapid decline, when in fact it needs to be as creditable as possible, by not dealing in rumours and claptrap, but in hardened concrete facts and doing so in a manner that fits with a legal practice that doesn’t infringe on the well-being of others.  The public needs to be informed in almost educational way that encourages people to make decisions based on facts and hardened truths and not exaggerations.  Journalism is of paramount importance to Britain as we have some of the greatest freedom of press laws in the world, but just because they have the freedom does not mean that they should be free to do as they please.  Any industry that affects and relies on the public needs to be governed and monitored fairly and lawfully, with any that do not hold up such high ethical values should be relieved of their duties.  Newspapers need the honesty of Sir David Attenborough, the credibility of Sir Michael Parkinson with the leadership of Sir Winston Churchill.

Newspapers are a priority to the British media.  I implore you go and buy a few today.

Salar de Uyuni (published in Gwangju News)

Andean Flamingos (Phoenicopterus andinus), Lag...

Image via Wikipedia

(published in Gwangju News 04-06-11)

After two minutes of driving there was nothing around. Our driver was hitting 80kph; it could have been double or we could have been stationary; it made no difference. It was the beginning of time, where nothing had existed. The white of the salt was like a blank sheet of paper or an empty canvass. It was breath-taking, out-of-this-world, like God had come down from the heavens and hadn’t started his work yet.

Having awoken early from our warm tents in San Pedro de Atacama, a pint-sized dwelling in the midst of an expansive desert; and the only stop between the Pacific Ocean and the picturesque – Salar de Uyuni.

An hour in the back of an old van we quickly ascended up to 4600m to the border crossing, nothing but a knackered hut with a torn Bolivian flag dangling from the pole above. The air was as thin as paper, everyone was gasping for whatever oxygen they could find. Our group was quickly separated into smaller groups and was assigned a driver that was going to chaperon us for the next few days.

The paved roads of Chile suddenly changed into horrifying tracks in Bolivia with more razor-sharp rocks than you would find on the moon. This did not unhinge our driver. He hit his pace and had no intention of slowing down. It was a 4×4 with one soul in the passenger seat, three in the middle and two more squeezed tightly into the back with all the food and equipment. For the first hour the jeep bounced around violently like a broken washing machine.

Our first stop at the height of 4,300m was the sumptuous Laguna Verde. This jade lagoon with mountains the colour of caramel and a sky of sapphire made the bumpy ride worthwhile. On the edge of the waters were a number of flamingos idly poking at its edge. Then on to the Laguna Colorada – a red lagoon, inundated with a thousand more brightly coloured flamingos. Their rosé feathers, their long slim necks and slow delicate sauntering across shallows make them arguably one of the most elegant creatures in the world. Time stood still whilst gazing at these stupendous creatures.

A quick stop for lunch, then onto to Sol de Manana. These large volcanic geysers boiled at exceedingly high temperatures shooting huge plumes of mud and water into the air. Watching them gurgle was like staring a roaring fire – it was hypnotic.

Throughout the day our small group was beginning to fill the nauseated affects of altitude sickness. To this our driver pulled out a small bag of green leaves. He told us this was the ‘only’ cure. He handed to each of us a small measure of coca leaves, the base form of cocaine, which grew prevalently in the area.

‘Masticate on this,’ he said, ‘and it will wake you up…’

We all continued to get worse!

The following day we’d continue our journey past more stunning lagoons and treacherous terrain. The highlight would be spending the night in a hotel made entirely of salt.

It was difficult to see how anything could survive in this climate; to our surprise we saw a small herd of llamas as if appearing from a mirage. They came forward and became so comfortable in our presence that to get close was of no concern; truly remarkable beasts.

Another rough afternoon in the jeep, our driver told us we were now entering the edge of the Salar. Immediately the horizon looked a billion miles away. The curve of the Earth could be seen as it twisted into oblivion. We were on the edge of the world, an eternal abyss.

Our hotel – Hotel de Sal was completely made of salt, from the tables and chairs to the doors and windows. After a hearty breakfast we loaded up the van and set off for the centre of the flats.

We flew across this white desert into nothingness. The smooth calm surface rolled under our tyres and in every direction there was nothing. We remained quiet; we were soaking up this spectacle.

Isla de los Pescados in the centre is home to thousands of giant cacti, the only vegetation around. These ginormous statues, some at least 1000years-old towered over as you make your way to the summit. At the top is arguably one of the most phenomenal panoramic views on Earth and in front lies before you over 12,000sqkm of nothing but pure sodium chloride!