Friday, January 9, 2009

Roboseyo asks, "Has anything changed?" -- When satire and irony are illegal in a society free speech wears a mask

NOTE: I'm not sure why the formatting here is wonky . .. trying to fix it . . .

I just read Roboseyo's post about Babo-palooza!" that used satire and irony to offer a critical voice about issues in Korea . . .


One of the more surreal quotes from the blog is this, "When we entered the building, we were ushered to the 14th floor, where they took us into a big office labeled "International Crimes Division."" I still can't believe that English teachers who wrote and performed a satire/comedy in Korea would be taken to a division that should be reserved for terrorists and other hard core criminals . . . unbelievable.

I remember being horrified when I read the news stories (see below) about these foreign teachers being arrested. I remember thinking, "Isn't Korea a democracy? Is there no freedom of speech here?"

I don't know if Confucianism and freedom of speech are compatible. There are a lot of presuppositions about definitions of 'personhood' that create a hierarchy of 'being' that relegates non-older non-males to something less than personhood . . .

I looked through my old emails and actually have a copy of the news article that no longer seems to be available on the Net (see below).

Roboseyo asks the question, "Have things gotten better?" In the context in which this question is framed by the story of the expats being detained, interrogated, and deported (I think? not sure if they were actually deported or not) . . . while there haven't been any stories similar to this in the news, I would reply by saying no, I don't think things have changed for the better--for the worse . . . maybe.

Consider the crackdowns on the candlelight vigils, the increased (and totally reasonable if done professionally) requirements for E2 visas, and the simple fact that if any person wore a t-shirt saying "Dokdo belongs to Japan" or "Dokdo is another word for Takeshima" on the street you'd likely be in mortal danger within five minutes, and that if you wore it to school you'd likely be holding a pink slip and an airplane ticket within a week . . . add to the mix that the Korean news media has been writing about its own difficulties with freedom of the press . . .

Nope, I'd say nothing has changed in terms of what you can and can't say . . . When satire and irony are illegal in a society free speech wears a mask.


Here are some of the original articles . . .

Expats Risk Expulsion for Satire

By Tony MacGregor and Bae Ji-sook
Staff Reporters

Foreigners may face deportation or fines if they volunteer at orphanages or organize performances without reporting them to the authorities.

The interpretation came from Joo Jae-bong, an official at the Ministry of Justice. He said there should be no problem with joining a poetry club but that volunteer activites should be registered with the ministry.

``If it 's just a gathering of friends, there should be no problem,'' he said. ``But if they are organizing performances, they need to register to do those things because they are changing the purpose of their stay here.''

He said the same rule applies to those who wish to volunteer in an orphanage. Foreigners need to register those activities with the ministry.

Currently, nine foreigners are under investigation in Pusan for conducting performances beyond their visa-sanctioned jobs.

A sketch performed by a mixed group of foreign English teachers and Koreans in Pusan has cast a shadow over the volunteer and extra-curricular activities of English teachers working in Korea.

The players involved in what was intended to be a light-hearted sketch were trundled off to the police station for questioning after reports emerged that the play insulted Korea and Koreans.

The play poked fun both at Korean customs and foreigners living in Korea. The jokes involved the Korean practice of eating dog stew and a pun on the number 18, an offensive word in Korean. There was also a scene involving Westerners pretending to be Korean.

During the questioning, police informed one of the players that a poetry-reading group she belongs to is not allowed to perform and that volunteering at an orphanage was also forbidden.

The sketch-commedy, called ``Babo-palooza,'' was performed on the evenings of Dec. 1 and 2 at the Neo-reun Small Theater on Kwangalli Beach by an amature theater group called Round Face Productions. About 150 watched the show.

The jokes about Westerners included their constant complaining, drinking too much and being stuck in their ways and not being able to be part of the country they choose to live and work in.

What has annoyed the players is that information about the play that instigated the police investigation was distorted or completely inaccurate.

``I 'm angry about what happened because it was all based on rumors and distortion, but I don 't want to leave, '' said one of the players, an English teacher from Britain who did not wish to be identified. ``I 'm happy here. I want to carry on with my life. ''

She said her feelings are reflected by the other nine foreigners who were involved in the sketch.

She said nobody who attended the performances appeared to be offended. ``Everyone was laughing and many people, including Koreans, praised us a lot after the performances.''

Twelve people were involved in the performance: nine foreigners and three Koreans. The foreigners were taken to the police station and questioned, but the Koreans were not.

``I didn 't feel threatened or pressured by the police. They were polite, and we apologized for the problem we had caused. We had no intention of offending anyone,'' she said.

She said that now more accurate information is coming out about the sketch and the players plan to make available to the public copies of the script and a video to demonstrate the inoffensive nature of the sketch.

She said the police had taken the case to the prosecution and that a judge or the prosecutors would have to decide whether charges would be laid.

The charges, she said, would be for working outside of visa-sanctioned jobs, punishable by fines or deportation. The nine who have been questioned are not allowed to leave the country until the investigation is over.

I remember in my first year (2005) in Korea I began doing a LITTLE of what Brian does (but nowhere near the same kind of thing in terms of depth and degrees of voicing my opinions) in terms of finding interesting articles about stuff going on in Korea and then sharing it with other expat/foreign teachers--except I did it via email to stay under the radar and avoid painting a target on my forehead bigger than the entire planet . . . so I give total kudos to Brian for being the brave and mildly insane person that he is (a good thing, I think, sanity is highly overrated and generally boring) for how he blogs while living and teaching in Korea.

Seattle's Only Theater Section
Dec 28 - Jan 3, 2007



It was the middle of his interrogation in a South Korean police station, and Chris Tharp was trying to explain satire. "I said that back home in America, we have a tradition of making fun of authority figures, that we make comedy about them, try to bring them down. Then I just stopped. I realized I was digging myself in a hole."

The police had detained Tharp—a sometime Seattle theater artist who was part of an infamous company called Piece of Meat and has been teaching English in Pusan, South Korea, for the past two and a half years—over a sketch comedy he helped produce. Called Babo-palooza (babo is Korean for "fool"), the show sold out two nights in a 60-seat theater with bits about drunken English teachers, overzealous customs agents, and some doggerel about dog-meat soup, called boshintang: "I will not eat this boshintang. I will not eat it, Kang-Jae Wang." It was, Tharp said, a silly evening that gently mocked both Koreans and Westerners.

Less than two weeks later, police came to the university where Tharp works and detained him and another performer for questioning, fingerprinting, and a drug test. "Luckily, we were all clean," he said. "In Korea, failing a piss test is the same as possession: You go to jail for a few months and get deported." At the station, he remembered selling one of his interrogators a ticket: Two undercover detectives had attended the show. The police said that the performance violated the expatriates' work visas, but most of the questioning was about the content: why it was called Babo-palooza , what the jokes meant, what the performers were "trying to say."

Investigators were especially curious about a sketch making fun of an ignorant Westerner being interrogated by nationalistic immigration officials. "In Korea, we do not have a tradition of mocking superiors ," Tharp remembers the policewoman saying. "Why do you do?"

The police released the performers and said they'd pass the results of their investigation on to a prosecutor who will decide whether the foreigners will be warned, fined, or deported.

Tharp called the American embassy, which gave him the standard line: We can't get involved in your local legal issues. The Korean and English newspapers casually distorted the story, making the show seem more pointedly racist than good-natured. One newspaper renamed the show Oriental Story. Another reported that it primarily mocked old Korean women. "This country has totally different journalistic standards," Tharp said. "I can't even tell you."

Despite the trouble, Tharp loves Korea and doesn't want to leave. He teaches at a university, travels, and stages the occasional play. Last year he helped mount a production of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist . "We're just amateurs," he said. "Not everything we do is funny or successful. But it doesn't warrant a trip to the police station."

By Carli Brosseau
Contributing Writer

If you are a foreigner working in Korea _ and volunteering on the side _ could you be fined, even deported? Don't laugh. Volunteering may put you in danger.

The law governing these matters is the Immigration Control Act of Korea. The law stipulates that a foreigner must obtain, in advance, permission from the Ministry of Justice for ``activities corresponding to a status of sojourn different from his own.''

The law applies even to charity activities and volunteer activities, Lee Hye-jeong of Ahnse Law Offices said.

If the law is strictly interpreted, she said, putting on free art performances and even visits to orphanages could be illegal.

Many government workers, including those at the Immigration Bureau, and lawyers that offer services in English, however, have never heard of the rule, let alone a case of its enforcement.

``I have never heard of that situation before,'' said Danielle Suh, a certified public accountant at Kim & Chang Law Office in Chongno, Seoul.

``These things are often considered on a case-by-case basis, but nobody has come in here asking for services like that.''

Han Heek-young, who works at the information desk at the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners, had also never heard of non-Koreans getting in trouble for volunteering.

``I've never even before thought that it could be illegal,'' she said.

When she called the Immigration Bureau on Friday, officials would not provide her information if she would not tell the nationality of the inquirer. She said officials said the question was important because foreigners for these purposes are divided into two groups: Chinese and everybody else.

Officials said foreigners were less likely to have problems if their volunteer work was unrelated to their paid work, Han said. For example, English teachers volunteering in kindergartens are likely to be suspected of taking money under the table for English instruction.

When Han spoke to immigration officials on Monday, they told her that foreigners should have no trouble volunteering, as long as no money is exchanged, even to recoup costs.

The officials were referring to the recent questioning by police of nine foreigners in Pusan after they put on a play that drew fire from the Korean press for being critical of Koreans.

The foreigners suspect that they were interrogated by police because of the content of the satirical play, but police say the foreigners were questioned for visa violations.

One of the foreigners questioned reported that during the interrogation police said that poetry readings and volunteer work were also visa violations.

While those involved in the play say they did not make a profit, they did collect 7,000 won per person at the door to pay for expenses. About 150 people saw the show.

The Immigration Bureau dedicated 2005 to cracking down on illegal activities performed by foreigners in Korea, and the push seems to have gained some momentum.

While the number of foreign residents decreased from 750,873 to 747,467 between 2004 and 2005, the number of registered residents as a proportion of the total increased, according to the ministry's most recent figures. Of those registered, almost half were Chinese.

The forum for immigration information on the bureau's Web site contains little other than anonymous postings about illegal activities. There are some requests for information by foreigners, but as of Monday there were several unanswered requests.

It is possible to find some information on the Web site about how to register activities, although the information is several clicks away from the homepage.

To register an activity, you must apply to a local or district immigration office with jurisdiction over the area in which you live. The application should be made in person, but could be made by proxy in special cases.

You must have your passport, alien registration card, downloadable application forms, and other documents that pertain to your visa category, which are detailed on the Web site. You also have to pay a 60,000-won fee.

If your application is accepted, you will receive a stamp in your passport and amendments on the back of your alien registration card.

The process is required for each activity that may go ``beyond the current visa status.''

Does anybody know what immigration officers are saying these days about volunteering and performing in Korea if you're on an E2 visa?



Anonymous said...

The Best mohammed T-shirt art is from Sweden.Watch and read the info at,

Stafford said...

It seems that volunteering at orphanages etc. is OK under the E1/2 regulations. In response to questions about what activities (apart from your indentured servitude to your employer) are allowed under an E1/2 Lim Yong Sung from The Residence Policy Team, Korean Immigration Service, Ministry of Justice states:

As you might know, if you want engage in activities beyond the current status of stay, you shall obtain the permission from the Minister of Justice. Those activities cover from economic to non-economic

It means that even you engage in unpaid volunteer work, you should get the permission from the Minister of Justice

However, you can do unpaid volunteer work at the places without getting the permission from the Minister of Justice, such as public institutions, orphanages, homes for the aged

See here: