Gangnam steal

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Park Geun-hye

Things are moving fast in South Korea. Early last week we caught up with developments in that country, where a massive scandal is roiling the chaebols (i.e. Samsung, Hyundai, and the other conglomerates that are the cornerstones of the economy) and is threatening to bring down President Park Geun-hye – who stands accused of helping her longtime chum Choi Soon-sil shake the chaebols down to the tune of some $69 million.

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Samsung headquarters, Seoul

Since we ran those pieces, there’s been a major new development. Last Wednesday, prosecutors raided Samsung’s headquarters in the Gangnam district of Seoul, the offices of the national pension service, and the office of Hong Wan-sun, who until earlier this year was chief investment officer at the pension service. Last year, as Jonathan Cheng and Eun-Young Jeong wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the pension fund “cast a decisive vote in favor of a merger of two Samsung affiliates” – namely, Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T – “that strengthened the grip of vice chairman and third-generation heir Lee Jae-yong on smartphone maker Samsung Electronics Co., the crown jewel of the business empire.” The raids were reportedly part of a probe of that merger. One detail overlooked by the Journal, but emphasized by one South Korean news source, was that this was the third raid on Samsung in a month – an indication that prosecutors had “already made significant progress in their investigation.” The same source indicated that this time around the raid focused largely on the office of Choi Ji-sung, Samsung’s Future Strategy czar.

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Lee Jae-yong

As the Journal‘s reporters noted, all this comes at a tough time for Samsung, which alone accounts for 17% of the South Korean economy. The discovery that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone could overheat and explode in a life-threatening conflagration led to two full recalls, cost over $5 billion, and caused the firm enormous embarrassment, leading to what may be long-lasting brand damage.

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Galaxy Note 7

The ultimate impact of this scandal, however, may be even more explosive than the Galaxy Note 7. As Bloomberg News observed in the wake of the Wednesday raids, it’s “raising fresh questions about decades of cozy ties between the nation’s big conglomerates and those in power.” While one president after another (including Park) has promised to limit the chaebols’ influence, each of those presidents has continued to play the same old game, exchanging favors, breaks, perks, etc., for cash on the barrel head. So far, it’s mostly been Park’s reputation that has suffered: once a popular leader, she’s now got an approval rating in the single digits. But as the South Korean public watches the country’s most powerful businessmen being paraded into police interrogation rooms like small-time crooks, and sees prosecutors raiding the offices of the nation’s largest and most prestigious company as if it were a Mafia operation, the chaebols – whose reputations have already been on the skids for years – are bound to lose even more of their luster. 

The only thing that’s sure here is that this story is just beginning to get underway. As the details of chaebol corruption continue to be investigated, uncovered, analyzed, and publicized, we’ll continue to monitor developments.

Kim conquers New York

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The Ureuk Symphony Orchestra on September 22

On September 22, the Merkin Concert Hall at New York’s Kaufman Music Center hosted a so-called “Peace Korea Concert” by an ensemble that calls itself the Ureuk Symphony Orchestra. The name of the event should have been a giveaway, but it came as a surprise to audience members – and, purportedly, to at least some of the musicians – when reporters for the Wall Street Journal informed them that at least three of the numbers on the evening’s program were paeans to the Kim dynasty in North Korea.

One of the works was Footsteps, “an inspirational ode to Kim Jong Un”; another celebrated the Kim dynasty; a third, according to the Journal‘s Jonathan Cheng and Timothy W. Murphy, “called for a unified Korea under the rule of Pyongyang.” (Immediately below is a video of the Ureuk group playing Footsteps; at the bottom of the page is a recording of the same tune, not by Ureuk, with subtitles translating the Korean lyrics into English.)

Informed of this fact, a cellist who’d played that evening acknowledged that the music had “seemed kind of militaristic.” A member of the audience recalled observing a group of “stern, well-dressed Korean men” in the audience. As it turned out, they were North Korean diplomats, led by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. The day after the concert, Ri gave an address to the U.N. General Assembly that consisted of the usual hostile rants about America. So much for “Peace Korea.”

So what’s the deal here? How did the Kaufman Music Center end up hosting a performance of North Korean propaganda music?

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Ureuk’s September 22 program

Well, it turns out that the conductor of the Ureuk Symphony Orchestra is one Christopher Joonmoo Lee, who is a member of that most bizarre subgroup of useful stooges – namely, the Western admirers of the barbaric, deranged Kim regime, which terrorizes and tortures its subjects willy-nilly and operates prison camps currently inhabited by approximately 200,ooo enemies of the state. (This in a country of about 25 million people.) Lee lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, but, according to the Journal, is “a frequent visitor to Pyongyang who appears regularly in North Korean media under his Korean name Ri Jun Mu.” Earlier in September, Lee took to Facebook to rejoice in the latest North Korean nuclear test: “It was a morning where the cheer for a unified Korea was exceptionally loud and clear!” he wrote.

jeung10While this warped creature’s orchestra has apparently escaped widespread notice up to now, it has in fact been performing at the Kaufman Center several times a year for over a decade. Its concerts routinely open with classical standards by composers like Mozart, Tchaikowsky, Dvorak, Verdi, and Vivaldi, then sneakily segue into Korean tunes eulogizing the Kims. (One of its concerts last February was a commemoration of Kim Jong Il’s birthday.) The main point of these performances, one gathers, isn’t to propagandize New York audiences, but to enable Kim’s state-run media to inform his subjects that American audiences have applauded musical programs exalting their wonderful system and their beloved dictator.

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Hak-Soo Kim

Several of Lee’s soloists – including violinist Khullip Jeung, soprano Yuri Park, and tenor Hak-Soo Kim – are Korean or Korean-American. The Journal didn’t quote any of them, and we haven’t been able to find any indication online of what their political views might be. But they clearly know what’s going on – they know exactly what they’re a part of. The vocalists certainly understand every word they sing in praise of the Great Leader, Dear Leader, and Sonny Boy. Somebody in the media should hunt these artists down and ask them – just for starters – how they manage to sleep at night. 

gillogly4It appears, though, that most of the instrumentalists on Lee’s payroll are Americans who don’t know any Korean. While at least one or two of them were reportedly surprised when the Journal reporters explained to them what the Korean songs were about (unlikely though that may seem), others admitted to knowing full well that they were participating in a public-relations effort on behalf of the world’s most abominable totalitarian state.

But, hey, a gig is a gig! The show must go on! That’s entertainment! Adorable violinist Samantha Gillogly denied having the slightest concern about the repulsive lyrics to the Korean songs: “The art on its own does not hurt anyone,” she told the Journal.

Perhaps not. Or perhaps every insidious effort to normalize the truly evil North Korean regime in the West is a dangerous step in the wrong direction, and anyone who contributes to that effort needs to examine his or her conscience.