Korea This Week: October 30th – November 5th

In Korea this week: Zainichi woes in Tokyo, Sino-Korean ties come in from the cold, and Gordon Ramsay shills for swill.


Gordon Ramsay Shills for Cass

In a new commercial for Cass beer, pitchman and respected chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay takes a large swallow of beer, grimaces in ostensible pleasure, and proclaims it to be “bloody fresh!” The commercial is hoped to raise the international profile of Cass beer, though, as it enlists a chef renowned for his attention to quality to shill for the Korean equivalent of Budweiser, the ad has also noticeably lowered the foreign beer-drinking public’s estimation of Ramsay’s ability to credibly rate beer.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that local beer enthusiasts found Ramsay’s praise hard to swallow, as many local critics’ one-word reviews of Cass, Hite, and other mass-market Korean brews tend to rhyme with the name of the beer. For the record, I don’t think an ice-cold Cass is terrible; but I do think that in the year 2017 one could easily pluck a better beer from any convenience store cooler, blindfolded, 19 times out of twenty (the one miss being a Cass).

That Ramsay made this commercial during a time when the Korean craft beer scene is exploding makes it more remarkable. Before good craft beers became widely available, going to a high-end meat joint in Korea inevitably meant pairing your Hanwoo or pork belly with a sub-par beer, a sad but unavoidable fact that is somewhat analogous to going to a New York steakhouse and washing down a filet mignon with a Miller Lite. With the appearance of many excellent craft brews in Korea in the past decade or so, limiting the menu to one or two mass-produced lagers has become much harder to justify.

To be fair to Mr. Ramsay, “bloody fresh” actually says very little about the beer itself. All beer is fresh at some point, and this quality in itself doesn’t distinguish it from literally any other beer in the world that was also recently brewed. Perhaps this semantic loophole (along with flipping great wads of cash) was how his conscience allowed him to do this? In addition to being “bloody fresh”, the primary virtue of Cass according to Ramsay is that it rinses the oil from your mouth, which, as die-hard Gordon Ramsay fans will happily note, is not a quality unique to Cass either – the same effect could just as easily be accomplished with water, mouthwash, or paint thinner.

Is that a “well played” for Mr. Ramsay, or has the shark been jumped? You decide.

China-Korea Relations to Thaw?

There was a bit of good news this week on the diplomatic front, as Chinese and South Korean relations show signs of thawing after a year-long chill.  

On Tuesday, the foreign ministries of China and South Korea released statements noting the importance of the bilateral relationship, and resolving to “expeditiously bring exchange and cooperation in all areas back on a normal development track” (from the South Korean Foreign Ministry statement).

The frosty relations between Seoul and Beijing were brought about by Chinese opposition to South Korea’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which South Korea deemed important in defending against North Korean attack, but which China viewed as giving the US early warning advantages and the ability to peer into Chinese airspace. The row resulted in a series of unofficial sanctions from Beijing that had severe effects on several Korean industries, from cosmetics and fashion to tourism to pop culture.

South Korean guides assist a Chinese tourist in Seoul.

The “Korea Bubble” in Japan

I recently came across this excellent short documentary on the challenges and controversy surrounding the Chongryon (aka “Chosen Soren” in Japanese) – the association of 3rd and 4th-generation Koreans living in Japan who maintain links with and allegiance to North Korea. 

The mini-doc discusses the historical background and context of the 150,000-strong group of Zainichi Koreans, and explains how they ended up in Japan, why so many identify with a country they were not born in and, in many cases, have never been to (ie. North Korea), and the problems they face today in light of current tensions between Japan and North Korea. 

The video is part of the Vox Borders series, which “investigates the human stories behind the lines on a map”, and is a much better use of thirteen minutes than, say, drinking a Cass Fresh.

A Zainichi Korean student attends a Korean high school class in Tokyo.

And how was your week?



John Bocskay is the author of Culture Shock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (2017, Marshall Cavendish), available at Amazon.uk, The Book Depository, What the Book, and anywhere fine books are sold.