Robert Koehler, the Dean of Korea bloggers, retires

One day in 2006, I took a few hours off from work to attend a hearing of what was then called the House International Relations Committee, one of many hearings to ponder the then-awful state of the U.S.-South Korean alliance without calling it awful. One of the witnesses that day was Richard Lawless, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Affairs, who had to squeeze past my chair to get to his. Lawless is a large man, but I can’t say that it hurt when he stepped on my foot. If it did, I was too stung to remember after he asked me, “Are you the Marmot?”

It shouldn’t have stung. Since 2003, when Robert Koehler first created The Marmot’s Hole, no English speaker has interpreted Korea so consistently, or so well. This week, Robert announced that he will shut down his blog, after twelve years. That leaves The Big Hominid (read his reaction here), The Gypsy Scholar, GI Korea, and me as the last men standing among those who’ve blogged about Korea for a decade, plus.

In recent years, Robert had stopped writing at TMH, and except for his infrequent posts, I’d stopped reading. Anyone could see that he was tired of it. You can’t force yourself to perform any creative function, like writing. Nor should you try. (When I have those days, I don’t write, either, but after nearly 12 years, they’re still rare.)

Fittingly enough, I heard of the Marmot’s end from a friend who was also a soldier in Korea while I was there, in the years just before The Marmot’s Hole. That friend has since become a Korea analyst for a government agency. Like me, my friend read TMH for years after his DEROS date, to tether himself to a country he couldn’t quit, through all the frustrations of the Roh Moo-Hyun years, and during the slow drift back toward the midstream.

The years after 2003, when Robert Koehler first founded The Marmot’s Hole, were angry and anarchic ones in Korea. Around that time, the country was swept by a wave of anti-Americanism, xenophobia, and street violence that could make it seem a little like Berlin in the late 1920’s. To the extent the sentiment on the street  — and within the government the street installed in the Blue House in 2003 — wasn’t expressly pro-North Korean, it was at least anti-anti-North Korean. Koreans — helped by a great deal of American sacrifice — had won their freedom from a Japanese occupation, a North Korean invasion, and a South Korean dictatorship. Suddenly, they seemed ready to gamble it all on vaporous and hopelessly implausible notions of a confederation with Seoul’s totalitarian rivals in Pyongyang. Often, this agenda came wrapped in a poisonous minjokheit. This, in turn, sometimes expressed itself in violent and ugly ways.

For Americans who were, either physically or emotionally, too close to Korea to ignore this, those years were a blizzard of contradictions — potentially irreconcilable differences in a relationship in which we had invested heavily. Thousands took to the streets to excoriate all of America over one tragic accident, while just about everyone ignored the deliberate mass starvation and slaughter of millions in North Korea (and for the most part, still do, nearly two years after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry declared that they have no parallel in the contemporary world).

South Koreans, or so we were told, didn’t want their government to help North Koreans defect, blamed the U.S. for dividing Korea, wanted American troops to stay in South Korea, but would take North Korea’s side if the U.S. attacked it. A sizable minority would have sided with Kim Jong-il regardless of who shot first. Or so said a dizzying array of possibly unreliable polls at various times in Roh Moo-hyun era. (Most of the Korean press, it must be said, was hostile to Roh, and the feeling was mutual.)

By this time, however, Blogger, Moveable Type, and WordPress had been invented. We took to these tools, not so much to offer explanations we didn’t have, but as therapy for ourselves. We called ourselves ourselves silly things like The Flying Yangban, the Oranckay, The Big Hominid, and the Nomad. The silliest and most pretentious name of all was One Free Korea, a notion that could be either hours or decades away, if it ever comes at all, and will probably have its greatest appeal retrospectively (and I’m at peace with that). Like any hobby, we mostly did it because something within drove us to do it. If anyone else found our writing therapeutic, so much the better.

The best, and most widely read, of these new blogs was called The Marmot’s Hole, though I still have no idea why he picked that name. Robert Koehler had been a translator for a South Korean newspaper, reads and speaks Korean fluently, and could access a universe of thoughts — inspiring, ethereal, salacious, or repellent — that the rest of us couldn’t, or could only access with great and increasing difficulty. And while Robert shared our frustrations, like us, he refused to fall out of love with Korea because of them. He had gone native, to be sure. When I finally met him and a small group of bloggers for dinner in Seoul a few years ago, he told me to look for “a fat white guy in a hanbok.” He chose the restaurant, a kalbi place in a beautifully restored hanok house in Bukcheon.

In those years, the Marmot’s Hole became essential reading. Then, many Koreans assumed that no foreigner would ever read the outrageous things they said. More than anyone else, Robert changed that. He helped — blogs almost always operate in packs — to tell the world about things like Nazi chic cosmetic ads, or popular anti-Semitic comic books that Julius Streicher would have adored. When the comic’s author “defended” himself by doubling down on his anti-Semitism, Robert outed that, too. And it must be said that when Brian R. Myers began telling the world about North Korea’s racism, so did Robert.

In more cases than I could count, Robert found statements in Korean sources that added to our understanding of the true (and at times, exceptionally nasty) views of code-switching politicians and public figures. My favorite example might be the time Robert caught leftist Unification Minister and future presidential candidate Chung Dong-Young addressing a delegation of North Korean officials as “comrade.” Or the time when the leader of a pro-North Korean civic group was caught red-handed, passing a loyalty oath to a visiting North Korean delegation. Or when he directed us to a Korean blog post that traced the lineage of a popular anti-American song to a North Korean textbook. Or, when the former President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions said this about violent protests at a U.S. Army post (and my former duty station) at Camp Humphreys:

During the May 1 North-South Workers’ Rally in Pyongyang, the workers of North and South agreed to unify to carry out the anti-American struggle”. The center of that struggle with the United States is Daechu-ri, Pyeongtaek.

No, I think it was still “Comrade Chung.” That one was definitely my favorite.

And when the Korean public’s views, or their reactions to events, were themselves newsworthy — or downright ghastly — Robert told us that, too.

More recently, when left-wing fringe lawmaker Lee Seok-ki was recorded while plotting violent attacks in support of a North Korean invasion — all over an open phone line! — Robert showed us the inconsistent alibis and explanations tossed out by his lawyers and political comrades.

Some of these stories were covered in the mainstream press. Some were covered after Robert covered them first, and in many of those cases, probably because Robert covered them first. Most of them, however, weren’t covered in the mainstream press at all. Had it not been for Robert, we’d probably never have read most of them. Robert says now that he hates reading what he wrote in those years. I sympathize. I, too, hate almost all of the crap I wrote before, say, 2010. But in the days I’ve taken to write this post, I’ve reviewed quite of few of Robert’s posts, and most of them still look relevant, well-written, and fun to read. His clear, direct prose managed to be both worldly and world-weary, reverent and satirical, influential yet without delusions of grandeur, and best of all, funny. I can’t tell you how often Robert turned my fury to laughter with a dry “sit down for this,” “you don’t say,” or my perennial favorite, “the humanity!”

I’ve often suspected that Robert’s tendency to link to NSFW material was really a veiled (unveiled?) protest against those who expected him to act as important as he reluctantly became. Sometimes, he seemed ambivalent about his blog’s audience and influence. And of course, every audience includes its share of deep-fried nutters. Of his notorious comment section, enough has already been said.

Also, for a guy who said he hated ranting about North Korea, he did it pretty well.

Whether this unwanted exposure was good for Korea, and for its relations with the U.S. and the world, may depend on your perspective. You could see it as another step toward the globalization of political correctness, or toward drawing Korean society into the standards that most of the civilized world claims to accept. I think, on reflection, that Robert’s posts were socially valuable, although I know he’ll wince when he reads me saying so. Korea is concerned, more than most places, about its reputation abroad. I suspect that the result of exposing Korea at its worst has been civilizing.

This exposure was also important to any serious examination of whether, and to what extent, an alliance between South Korea the U.S. still has a shared purpose and a base of popular support. That’s why Undersecretary Lawless read it. Not that it matters, but that’s why I read it, too.

The Korean government, which expends astronomical sums to influence opinion here in Washington, may or may not understand the influence that Robert’s writing had on a generation of his readers, many of whom have since graduated into places of influence. Because Robert broke through the platitudes and the propaganda of South Korea’s influence machine, most of us harbor more ambivalent views of the alliance than the generations that came before us. At the risk of taking this post onto a tangent, that ambivalance has improved the quality of our critical thinking about the alliance. Does the current structure of U.S. Forces Korea do us more political harm than good? Do all parts of that force present more risk than reward? Against which threats are non-military options better deterrents than keeping 30,000 Americans within range of North Korean rockets?

If asking those questions makes both the U.S. and South Korea more secure, that would be a great service. But it would be enough that Robert Koehler reminded us that the things we loved about Korea were still worth holding on to (thankfully, we still have Robert’s wonderful photoblog for that).

Also, he made us laugh. The public service in this requires no elaboration.

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New blog template

Thanks for your patience for the flurry of design experiments and changes to this site over the weekend. No, it’s not because the North Koreans hacked the site again. The culprit is actually Google, which just announced a policy that sites that aren’t mobile-friendly will be buried in SEO rankings. For the last four or five years, this site had been using an extensively hacked version of this template, which I liked very much, but which was also the reason why the site wasn’t mobile friendly. Unfortunately, the developers stopped supporting it a year ago, so there wasn’t a newer version to upgrade to. The majority of my traffic comes from Google searches, so the old template had to go.

Having been forced to change something I liked the way it was, my secondary goal was to change the site’s look and functionality as little as possible. It took many hours of work, about two dozen tries with various templates, and a few hours of stylesheet modifications, but I think I finally got to a reasonable facsimile of last week’s version. One of the things I don’t like is the “read more” buttons at the bottom of each post, whether there’s more to read or not. That’s an incompatibility between the excerpt function and the plugin that overrides it, and I’ll be looking for a solution to that in the coming weeks. One thing I do like is that the site seems to load faster now. Meanwhile, let me know how you like it.

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Putin is already censoring your news.

Granted, Buzzfeed has never been known as a paragon of journalistic integrity, but it should have to register as a foreign agent for giving in to this.

Separately, Anne Applebaum writes about state-sponsored comment trolls, who I’ve often suspected of having an outsized presence at the Post’s own comments section, and of commenting at this humble site on occasion.

Most of the best comments and corrections I get come by e-mail, which is why I often wonder whether enabling comments is worth the hassle.

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Technical Help Wanted

One of the things they didn’t teach me us in law school was web design, and I will soon have to take on a significant project on this site that I lack the time and the technical sophistication to do myself.

In short, I need some technical help from someone with a solid understanding of WordPress, databases, sql files, and such things.  Ideally, I’m asking for a referral to a known, reputable, and affordable commercial service to consult with.  (The affordable part matters, because this is not a revenue-generating site, but one that I run and fund with my own time and money.)

Lacking that, I’d accept technical advice from someone I know and trust.  To respond, please email me at onefreekorea “at” yahoo “dot” com.  Thanks in advance for any help you can offer.

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Hey, where’s my comment?

Recently, you’ve probably noticed how many spam comments my plugins aren’t catching. I don’t like seeing it get though. It gives the site a weedy look, and never more so than when it’s hawking some questionable product or service. If I didn’t have other life priorities, I suppose I should just find better plugins, but that’s a near impossibility with my decrepit version of WordPress, and an upgrade is a bigger project than I’m willing to take on right now. The second choice would be to identify the keywords associated with comment spam, but I think I’ve exhausted that one. That leaves one reasonably sure way to block the spam out, which is to send any comment containing a hyperlink into the moderation filter. That’s unfortunate, because many of the best comments are either from other bloggers or (as my rules encourage) contain supporting links to buttress their assertions. I’m going to try this for a while and see how it works; meanwhile, thanks for being patient. I have two time windows a day when I should hopefully have the chance to liberate comments from the moderation filter.

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Light Blogging for the Foreseeable Future

You’ve no doubt noticed the relative lack of postings in the last few months, and that trend is going to continue for the next few months. This is the collateral effect of good things happening in the family and work parts of my life. Unfortunately, as those responsibilities grow, they leave relatively less time for other things. So for the foreseeable future, my prime blogging time — my commute — will have to be spent reading and studying other things, and whatever time remains is taken up with Nerf duels with my kids. This isn’t the end of OFK, but it will mean that posting will be less frequent, and will be driven more by major events than minor ones. Thanks for continuing to stop by.

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Celebrating Seven Years of Obscure Futility

On this day, way back in 2004, I published the first OFK post. Had you asked me then what I’d be blogging about now, I’d have have said that I wouldn’t be. Then, I might have suggested reconstruction efforts, or possibly a low-intensity conflict between Chinese “advisors” and North Korean insurgents. Seven billion dollars in South Korean aid, Chinese money, and unsteady American policies have prolonged the inevitable, but it still looks inevitable, if different.

Then, I imagined that a broad-based popular uprising would eventually bring this horrible episode to an end. Today, I see little possibility of this anytime soon. Time has changed my idea of regime collapse to a more gradual concept in which regions, markets, constituencies, and units slowly drift away from central control, in which chaos arises from totalitarian order, and in which the regime will be forced to choose between extorting its neighbors and controlling its subjects. It could take years for that process to play out, depending on how long Kim Jong Il lives, and there will be much more needless misery and more crises before it does. But at least it can’t go on forever.

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I’m thinking of switching to a Mac, and I’d like your advice

I blame a series of developments for this. First, I can’t forgive that virus known as Windows Vista and the manufacturers who foisted it on us. Second, my iPod turns out to have been a gateway drug. It’s just a thing of beauty, and I’m still amazed by its functions and capability, all fit into such a tiny object. Third, my old Dell is about dead from sheer exhaustion. I’ve preliminarily settled on a Macbook Air, and am leaning toward the 11-inch screen version for blogging on the Metro. So, what’s your advice on the following:

1. What’s the best place and time to buy one?
2. How tough the switch is going to be, in terms of adjustment and compatibility?
3. I don’t do gaming. As if. So is it worth it for me to upgrade from 1.4 GHz to 1.8 GHz?
4. I often have multiple programs open at once, including Google Earth, which takes up a lot of RAM. I suppose that means I should upgrade to 4GB?
5. Do Macs work with most commercially available wireless internet services? Or is there some better option for going wireless with a Mac?

Thank you in advance. Hopefully, I’ll repay your advice with more and better output.

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Blogged With Love

I’ve been working on posting audio of Vitit Muntarbhorn’s address last Friday at PSCORE but have gotten bogged down in researching and learning some of the technology involved (long story – eg, Korea’s “real ID” online requirements are a hassle in addition to being just plain wrong).

In the meantime, I want to pass along a link to a friend’s blog, which I’ve enjoyed reading since she started it last month. Lauren is a friend and fellow JFNK campaigner (she usually plays the role of the caught NK refugee in our weekly street theater) who seemingly appeared out of nowhere one night at a Catacombs meeting (scroll down) a little over a year ago. Since then she’s revitalized JFNK and also given generously of her time to several other groups as well.

Lauren is chock full of energy, ideas, and love for the NK people — and now is packing 1000 shoelaces to boot!

Check out her list of places to volunteer in Seoul while you’re at it.

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The Daily NK on OFK

As a member of the U.S. military almost ten years ago, he was surprised by what he saw as the obvious contradiction between the public reaction to the deaths of two young South Korean schoolgirls in an accident involving a U.S. military vehicle and what he calls “the nearly unanimous apathy about the millions of North Koreans being starved by Kim Jong Il, or the hundreds of thousands of dead and dying in his political prison camps.

Thanks to the Daily NK’s Chris Green for the shout-out here, where he profiles this blog and NK Econ Watch.

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Tonight Is the Night for Kim Jong Il to Take a Satellite Photo of Washington, D.C.

Like about 200,000 of our neighbors, we’re all freezing in the dark here. The roads probably won’t be clear by Monday, and more snow is forecast for Tuesday. Our governor says it’s breaking all previous records.

We’re shivering in good spirits and have plenty to eat — my son has now beaten me in three straight games of Monopoly — but this may be the last post for a while until power is restored, meaning the unfortunate delay of Part II of the Cao de Benos interview and other regularly scheduled programming.

In conclusion, I blame Al Gore for global cooling, caused by his dangerous manipulation of our supply of greenhouse gases.

OFK, signing off for now.

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Blog Find: North Korea Leadership Watch

This is one of the best finds I’ve seen in a long time — prolific, funny, and full of information I hadn’t heard anywhere else. That’s all the more impressive given that blogger Michael Madden was ambitious enough to choose subject matter that most would consider droll, stultifying, opaque, and impervious to verifiable empirical analysis. Not just anyone could begin with material like that and come up with posts like, “Habemus Successor? Or Thaek it to the Limit?.”

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Sorrow for a friend I’ve never met

It’s been a terrible thing reading Kevin, a/k/a The Big Hominid, describing the terminal cancer of his mom, someone he obviously loves and respects very much. Kevin is a founding father of the Korea blogosphere, one who never really fit into any of the standard categories — who else could manage to bridge the spiritual, philosophical, and scatological the way Kevin does? I’ve never quite managed to meet Kevin, and yet I’m really at a loss to explain just how saddened I am at this. Words fail me, so I’ll just suggest that you stop by and leave your good wishes at his blog.

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