Jehovah's Witness material

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Korea

If you’ve been reading this blog since the Daegu days, you’ll probably remember me complaining about this particular Christian sect in Korea. As much as my blog may be associated with Shincheonji going-ons (who are coincidentally currently getting hammered in the media lately), Jehovah’s Witnesses have long been my bane in Korea.

If you’ve come to the ol’ Sanctuary post 2010, let me quickly bring you up to speed. Back in Daegu, JWs would roam the downtown core of Daegu, looking for foreigners. I was a twelve minute walk from the heart of Daegu’s Dongseongno (the main shopping street downtown), so I frequented it usually once a week. I ran into them all the time around the Kyobo Bookstore. They were always women, and they always had English-language material. They never tried stopping the many Koreans walking by them. Their purpose was to specifically target foreigners and bring them into the fold.

Because if there’s one thing North Americans love, it’s having our own religions explained to us by Koreans.

Back in 2007, I would politely listen to what they had to say. I was a Canadian abroad, and thought I had a reputation to maintain. Three years later, I was telling them I was an atheist in Korean, and blowing by them.

When I came to Gangneung, I didn’t exactly escape their notice. I couldn’t. My landlady was one.

She would use bill collection time as an excuse to read Bible passages to me. Cute? Not really, considering she told her congregation about me. When they were finished with their Bible reading at her home, they would sometimes come down, knock on my door and introduce themselves to me, ask for my cell number, and invite me to their church. Did they do this to the other tenants? Of course not. As aggravating as that was, the last straw was the church members coming to my door around 9 and 10 PM, asking me to watch a video and then ask me for feedback so they could do their ‘homework’.

Again, they only ever came to my door, and no one else.

One time, someone claiming to be from the City Hall called the school, asked for me, and when I answered, he went on to read Bible passages. I flipped out on the phone.

That incident did not keep them from somehow worming their way into the school and leaving English-language material on my desk. The latest was today’s. I was in class, so I didn’t get to see who had the pleasure of contributing to the school’s recycling programme.

You might think I was getting this special treatment, but that’s hardly the case. In fact, quite a few other foreign English teachers have had them drop by their schools as well in Gangneung. Some of them have had JWs follow them to class, wait outside, and then hang around to talk about their religion. Others have harassed the foreign teacher at their desks in the teachers’ office.

You’d think I would have my hands full dealing with Korean cults like Shincheonji and the International Youth Fellowship (Good News Mission). The former doesn’t require any further explanation, but the latter likes to advertise their highly-expensive Christmas concerts and their English speech contests in the school. There’s also the church of the heavenly mother (the church which has the Christian god as a Korean woman) who also used to come by my door.

You’ll notice that a lot of Christians sects in Korea use the same tactics. They target foreigners, so as to appear more international (and provide proof that their message has universal appeal). They like to use women to approach foreigners, preferably younger ones (and wearing something that catches your eyes). They also aggressively pursue their targets in ways the Catholics and Buddhists won’t (you’ll notice I left Protestants out. Korean Protestants can be just as… special as some of the cults here).

In public, I try to be as understanding as possible. I also try to exercise patience and tolerance. However, truth be told, I am sick and tired of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Korea. Korea has done so well in creating their own sects and cults, I don’t know why an American one is so prevalent here. For eight years they have accosted me in the street, at my home(s), and place of employment. No other religious order has been such a royal pain and annoyance. I’ve turned them down literally dozens of times, but they still keep pushing their schtick onto me. The only thing that has kept me from going full militant-atheist on them is that I haven’t met in them in person for several years now.

They’re just out there in the periphery. Sneaking their Doomsday garbage onto my desk when I’m not looking. Since they’re so good at English, I hope they stumble onto this entry. After nearly eight years, I no longer care if I come across as harsh, or too blunt. Believe your End-of-Time nonsense people have been spouting for millennia. That’s your business. If you want to waste your life worrying about an apocalypse that isn’t going to happen, do it on your own time. Don’t try to rope hard-working foreigners into your juvenile behaviour by hounding them at their jobs.

Women's Rights

A Celebration of Korean Women

This Sunday marks a global day that recognizes the struggle women have the world over to be treated equally. As a collective species, we are nowhere near this goal. Partly because of people like myself, who went through most of their lives thinking there wasn’t a problem that needed to be rectified. I was one of those people in university who glossed over feminism when it was discussed in my coursework, as I believed Canada had become an egalitarian state. It wasn’t until I spent some time in Korea, that I was able to look back at my country with a critical eye. What I discovered was a country dismissive over women’s rights issues, and condescending attitudes that mitigated further discussion. Vocabulary parsed with victim-blaming, and slut-shaming, helped prop up a culture that wasn’t conducive towards critical self examination.

That isn’t to imply women have it easier in Korea, because that simply isn’t the case. If anything, the patriarchy is more deeply entrenched. For those of us who hail from the West, and live in Korea, this is readily apparent. While men’s rights activists were an easy target to mock in Korea, it gradually became apparent they had peers within our home countries. As I became more aware of the mirroring of attitudes, it helped me cast a more critical eye on Canada.

However, much of the above has been reiterated multiple times within this blog. What perhaps hasn’t been as often written about is the impact women have had on me, while living in Korea. Women have had an absolutely massive impact on whatever measure of success I have had in the country. As has often been the case with my sex throughout history, I usually take the credit that a lot of hard-working women behind the scenes more justly deserve.

What makes this particularly egregious is that I am constantly surrounded by women. This has been true in Daegu as well as Gangneung. At all the places I worked at in Daegu, there were no male coworkers for 99% of the time. My peers were all women, who had to work very hard to sustain the business nature of the hagwon industry. Whereas I could focus on my lessons and teaching abilities, my female counterparts weren’t as lucky. They often had to maintain a certain standard of appearance, and beauty, to appease management and the customers (students’ parents). Whereas I was judged on my ability to engage the students, my coworkers didn’t have that luxury. They also had to exercise their domestic skills to clean and cook, when the men could just sit back and passively take it in. During functions or events, they had to assume submissive airs and tones, so as to fit into a rigid set of cultural rules.

Despite all this, they still did everything within their power to ensure I was as comfortable as possible. They befriended and hung out with me on our time off. If I ever needed help, they never ignored my text messages. If I had a problem with something I could not fix, I would often dump it onto their laps, and they would work their magic. They would take me to places within the city I would never have been exposed to, helping me to better acclimatize to the local culture. If it hadn’t been for them, I probably wouldn’t have lasted the 39 months I spent in Daegu.

In Gangneung, it has been much of the same. I do have more male coworkers at my school, but none of them are English teachers. I have made friends with some of the men teachers over the years, but they would often get transferred to other locations within a year. By and large, my social circle in Gangneung has been primarily female.

My immediate coworkers within the English department have been nothing short of gracious. I try to do the heavy lifting when it comes to teaching and lesson planning, because I am well-aware of the extra work they are saddled with, and I can’t help with. In class, we’re a well-oiled machine humming along. But without my co-teachers’ hard work and dedication, I wouldn’t be in the position of a teacher the students adore. Every complaint I ever had was looked into, so as to not become a constant source of irritation. Any trouble I was having, professional or personal, I could count on them to help pull me through, even when it wasn’t in their job description.

When it came to life outside the classroom, the friendliness of the women I worked with was without equal. This would extend to the non-English teachers as well. Most of my adventures post-2010 have been with coworkers who don’t teach English. I would often go on trips throughout the province (and sometimes outside) with them. At first it may have been the novelty of having a foreigner along for the ride, but four years later we’re still getting together for regular meet-ups. By now they’ve been transferred to other schools, or accepted early retirement plans, but we still catch movies or chow down at hidden away restaurants. Knowledge I’ve absorbed from my experiences with them has been used with other friends when they visit Gangneung, helping me maintain my mister Smartypants reputation.

The same positive things can be said about my girl students. They’ve often been many of my best and brightest students since 2007. Most (if not all) of my camps and after school classes have been lopsidedly composed of girls. They’ve approached my classes with an insatiable tenacity, and a real thirst for EFL education. They’ve helped buoy me over the course of the past four years. Some of them in particular have been instrumental in my success in certain classes. They’ve been vocal and active, crushing any dead silence, and creating an atmosphere that gave their peers the courage to speak up. The support they’ve given me allowed me to ground myself in the realities of teaching EFL in Korea. They taught me to soldier on, and bear the brunt of adversity that may come my way.

However, any adversity that comes my way will probably not be a factor of my gender, or sex. This can’t be said for my female friends, co-workers, and students, whom have all faced discrimination at some point in their lives. All my friends in Daegu faced harassment and assault on numerous occasions. Ten thousand years of civilization have yet to produce a society that is completely equal between the genders. All of us have a responsibility to work towards this goal. We live in an age when stories of misogyny and unfair treatment echo throughout the world. We can no longer claim ignorance towards the facts, when they continue to stack up. There will always be naysayers, and those who perpetuate violence and harassment on anonymous online platforms. It’s time we dragged them kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and demanded a better world for ourselves. It’s also time men like myself acknowledge the women who worked hard alongside us, so that we could later brag about our success.

We stand upon the shoulders of giants.


Blaine Harden’s “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot”- A Review

On the 18th of February, a publicity assistant from Viking emailed me with an advanced copy of Blaine Harden‘s forthcoming book The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom. I normally don’t agree to do reviews, or features, on this site. I don’t particularly like shilling subpar products, or making Scroozle’s Sanctuary a dumping ground for them. However, once in a while, something comes my way that serves this site’s purpose, and I figure it’s in people’s interests if I add my perspective.

[Too long; didn’t read score: 4/5]

I have never read Harden’s other works, although I have certainly heard of his previous book. With my circle of expat friends and acquaintances in Korea (some of whom have worked with North Korean defectors), it is difficult to altogether avoid a publication like Escape from Camp 14. I was also aware of Shin Dong-hyuk’s later recantation of certain events, and the ensuing fog it cast on other defectors’ published stories. This didn’t influence my reading of Harden’s recent book, however, as it’s an entirely different story (although it still deals with a North Korean defector).

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot is a retelling of two histories. Running parallel to each other, they intertwine the trials and tribulations of Kim Il-sung, and the biography of a young fighter pilot who spent years planning to defect. I found this structure to be interesting, and the trade off between the narratives made for light and enjoyable reading. I didn’t find it plodding, and was engrossed by the details the book provided. Despite happening many decades ago, the story was fresh and didn’t come off as dry or stale.

History is obviously a passion of mine, having graduated with a degree in it. I’ve spent enough time in South Korea (when I leave, I’ll be three months shy of my eighth year anniversary) to have a good handle of the country’s history. I follow North Korean happenings fairly regularly, and spent a lot of time correcting Western news media’s overblown reactions towards the country. This book was right up my alley, and that was the primary reason I agreed to give it a go (the other reason being I had a lot of free time before the new school year starts on March 2nd).

Harden’s book is an approachable read for those curious about the world’s last Stalinist country. It doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary details, and takes its time setting the table before charging ahead with its main story. If you’re not all that interested in why North Korea acts like it does, and are instead interested in reading a story full of subterfuge, and double-dealing, reminiscent of The Great Escape, then this isn’t the story for you. The protagonist of the story, No Kum Sok (No Geum-seok) had a very unorthodox upbringing in North Korea, and his is a reactionary tale to the events around him (many of which are orchestrated by Kim Il-sung).

Between the two stories, No’s is the one that is more personal. Harden had direct access to No, and to recently declassified war records to verify his account. Kim’s story loses that immediacy, due to the nature of his person. Soviet-era cables shed light on Kim’s life, but they don’t come close to the inner dialogue that help flesh out No in the reader’s mind. Kim’s politicking, and his many efforts to reign his country in were entertaining to read. His ruthlessness in going after each and every potential rival, helps explain the longevity of his dynasty.

No’s story doesn’t end after he defects. While the bulk of his story takes place before and during the war, Harden sticks with him while he was whisked away to Okinawa and later to the US. No’s adjustment to American life, and politics, was a satisfactory way to conclude the book. These were often punctuated with details closer to the year 2015, as No is still very much alive (now going as Kenneth Rowe).

There were quite a few details that came as a surprise to me, mostly concerning Kim. Images of North Korean leaders visiting businesses, factories, and the like, are well known to those who digest North Korean news. I was unaware of their roots. I had assumed these visits were to demonstrate the all-knowing nature of the Kim dynasty, but I had no idea they were borne out of an attempt to listen to complaints and suggestions from the general populace (or at least appear to). They were a by-product of Soviet mishandling of certain situations. I had known of Kim’s reputation as a brilliant anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, but had no idea he had botched up the Korean war so poorly, and was disdained so much by Moscow and Beijing alike.

To his credit, Harden paints a very balanced picture of the main powers in the book. He takes great care to peel back American historical revision, notably through the fire-bombing campaigns that resulted in scores of civilian deaths. He illustrates the different characteristics of Russian military personnel in Manchuria and North Korea. Black and white are given a fair shake of the stick, along with the varying shades of grey prevalent in the war.

One of the biggest gripes I had with the book was its uneven rendering of Korean words into English. If you have never been to Korea, or don’t speak Korean, you probably won’t notice this, or care. In most cases, Harden stuck with the older style of romanization, which is used in North Korea (although with a great deal more accents). South Korea has since moved on, though, and with the Korean Wave, the new standard might be better known to outsiders. Especially when it came to South Korean cities (Kimpo=Gimpo; Pusan=Busan; although Daegu was spelled correctly, and not the older version, Taegu). This nit-picking may be unwarranted, as the average reader probably won’t keep track of the names, as they are entirely too foreign to keep straight. For myself, it took me a few seconds to work out the original hangeul of each name, so that I would properly pronounce it in my head.

There’s also a slight translation misunderstanding, with the Korean word ‘sul’ (술), rendered in text as ‘sool’. In the book, it’s taken as the name of a specific traditional Korean spirit. However, in Korea, sul usually means an alcoholic drink (beer and soju are both ‘sul’).

[The word comes from the Chinese character 酒 which is often rendered as 주/ju, hence soju and maekju (beer)]

Now for the score. If you’re like me, with a penchant for history, and North Korea, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot is a respectable 4/5. If you’re someone without a passing interest in either, then you probably won’t get much out of it (other than it being a fairly light and enjoyable read). However, as North Korea continues to make headlines on a fairly frequent basis, it’s important to understand the events that lead to modern day interactions with the outside world. Harden’s book is as good as any to be a stepping stone towards this goal.