Itaewon Class is Capitalist Propaganda and I Love It

I have spent an inordinate amount of time with the Korean drama Itaewon Class because I’ve been using it to study Korean*, so I know it way better than anyone has any good excuse to.

What I find wild is that while it’s structured as a morality tale, it is actually basically propaganda for the system it purports to criticize. The basic premise is that a standup guy, who suffers tragedy and injustice, vows to take revenge on those who’ve abused their power by—wait for it—building the biggest and best food company in Korea.

The primacy of revenge is not the strange part, because it can be framed as a quest for justice. In the hero’s origin story, all his problems stem from the abuse of power by a Chebol family that owns Korea’s number one food conglomerate, Janga Group.

First, Park Seroyi is expelled from school when he tries to stand up to the bullying of the Jang family’s oldest son, Jang Geun-won, and Seroyi’s father, who works for Janga is fired. Then, his father dies when Geun-won accidentally hits him with his motorcycle and fails to call the hospital. When Seroyi finds out that Geun-won is at fault, but that Janga paid off an employee to take the blame, he assaults Geun-won, which earns him two years in prison.

In prison, Seroyi vows revenge/justice, and comes up with a 15-year plan to surpass Janga Group as the biggest food company in Korea.

The next chunk of the show/webtoon focuses on Seroyi’s growth from a plucky entrepreneur with a single pub to a wealthy and successful businessman while facing adversity from Janga Group. Of course, Seroyi does all this while being exceptionally focused, principled and non-judgmental, and alongside a team of outcasts to whom he gives a chance, and to whom he’ll owe his success.

If you focus on that part alone, the darkly capitalist throughline is less obvious, since it’s a fairly typical arc of overcoming adversity. But it eventually becomes hard to ignore that the underlying message is that Seroyi can only get justice through the same means that brought him down: power and money.

When Seroyi is in prison waiting for his sentence, Geun-won’s father—the Janga chairman and Seroyi’s real nemesis—offers him a way out. All he has to do is apologize to Geun-won, essentially acknowledging his place in the hierarchy. Seryoi angrily says it’s Geun-won who should be doing the apologizing. To which Chairman Jang responds:

“소신. 패기. 없는 것들이 자존심 지키자고 쓰는 단어. 이득이 없다면 고집이고 개기일 뿐.”

“Principles. Ambition. Those are words used by those who have nothing but their ego. If you gain nothing, that’s just stubbornness and foolishness.”

In other words, what good are principles and ambition without the power to act on them?

That message is a recurring one within Korean dramas: that those with power will use it as they please, and those without it should get some of their own if they want things to change. The point isn’t necessarily that a system where the powerful control justice, policy and pretty much everything for their own benefit, is good, but that it’s a fact of life—the natural order of things.

Itaewon Class heartily endorses that view. Seroyi can only win by joining the system that destroyed not only his family, but the Jang family too. One way you see this is that Seroyi’s actual success in getting justice, when Geun-won is taken to account for his crime, is treated almost as a side plot to his true crusade against Chairman Jang.

About halfway through the season, Seryoi’s love interest and sidekick, Jo Yi-so, records Geun-won confessing to killing Seryoi’s father. When the news comes out, Chairman Jang chooses to protect Janga Group over his son, and lets him take the fall.

In my mind, this should be the climax: Chairman Jang betrayed his own family, and is basically left alone in the world—his oldest son is in prison; he’s rejected his second illegitimate son; and his remaining allies are only there because of his money.

But no, Itaewon Class treats that victory as minor compared to Seroyi’s true plan to take Janga down. Seroyi wasn’t even trying to get Geun-won to pay for his crimes — it was Yi-so!

At the actual climax of the story, Geun-won has been re-arrested for attempted murder, and more importantly, Chairman Jang is about to lose control of his company because of his son’s misdeeds as well as allegations of fraud. There’s only one buyer willing to acquire Janga Group when it’s in such a mess. Who might that be? None other than Park Seroyi, now CEO of IC Group, the second best food conglomerate in Korea.

Oh how the tables have turned. The old and dying Chairman Jang kneels down before Seroyi, apologizes for everything he’s done, and begs him not to take his company. Seroyi responds that after hating the Jang father and son for so long, he truly has no more anger anymore.

“So you forgive me?” Chairman Jang asks hopefully.

“Do you take me for a pushover?” responds our supposed hero. “Do you think I’d be satisfied with an old man kneeling just before he dies?”

Pregnant pause.

“I,” says Seryoi, “am a businessman.”

Cue the victory music. That’s where the story really ends, the rest just wraps up some loose ends for the other characters, and caps it all with a happy ending for Seroyi and Yi-so.

Everything that’s happened, all the pain and injustice, the sacrificing of Geun-won who is really just a product of the Chebol system, the years of his and Yi-so’s youth given to building an empire, all of it climaxes in the moment when he can buy his rival’s company? when he’s proved his mettle as a businessman?

It’s such an absurd and rather heartfelt endorsement of Korean-flavored capitalism.

I will take into account that the show highlights that Seroyi believes that business is all about people. And that its message might be that Seroyi is a good Chebol, because he cares about his staff, and he knows that his success is not due to his own work alone. But honestly, that doesn’t really undermine the deep-seated support of structural capitalism, only that there is a slightly kinder way to administer it.

What’s funny is that because it’s a Korean drama, everything carries such enormous emotional weight, scaffolded by unself-consciously blatant symbolism. I can still watch the scene between Seroyi and Chairman Jang at the prison, and feel all the feels for and from Seroyi; or the final scene where he remembers his father’s words about the alcohol tasting sweet, and like Yi-so, all I want is for our hero’s night to be sweet.

Like, it works. Which makes it even more absurd.

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*How I’ve been using Itaewon Class to study Korean:

I watched the show in March, then once I knew the story, read the webtoon over the next nine months, as my Korean got progressively better. Some chapters I skimmed, others I studied intensively.

Recently, I found an amazing set of lessons from YouTuber KSTYLEYO who goes through about 10 short clips from the show, and goes through the text and explains each and every word/phrase. I have a playlist of the lessons, and the clips that they’re based on, a spreadsheet with all the info here, and a flashcard set here.

A few notes: Netflix unfortunately does not offer Korean subtitles, and I haven’t been able to find them elsewhere. And the webtoon is no longer free on Daum, and non-Koreans can’t access the paid version, but you can get the whole thing (with watermarks and flashy ads) here.

Lemmatizing Korean in R for Language Learning

I must begin with a disclaimer that I am absolutely not a coder, or anything of the sort, just someone obsessed with language and vey rudimentary R skills.

The truth is that I’ve been certain for a long time that there’s some NLP magic out there that can be really helpful in language learning, especially in figuring out the most efficient way to approach a new text in a foreign language.

It’s a super practical question. In Korean, where I’m an absolute beginner, I’m most interested in finding the most frequent words in very short texts, or in kdrama episodes I’m about to watch. In Spanish, where I have a basic command of the language, I’m looking for the most topical words, or two-to-three word phrases, in a book like Harry Potter.

I recently discovered LingQ and Learning with Texts, both very great tools that keep a library of words or phrases you know, so that when you input a new text, you can immediately see what you don’t know.

But it quickly became apparent that those tools don’t help with a most basic problem: that words take on a zillion forms. If you know the word “eat,” you know the words “eating”,”eats” and “eaten.” Things get way crazier in a language like Korean where particles get added directly to words; verbs have basically infinite forms thanks to verb endings and politeness levels, and there’s a wonderful tendency to bric-a-brac all of the above. It’s fabulous and fascinating, but makes it impossible to use simple frequency to get a sense of the text.

So all that being said, my first goal was very simple: strip each word of a new text to its stem, and then use the frequency of the stems (or lemmas) to choose vocabulary words.

Luckily, I found the answer super easily using the udpipe package, which produces a table with tokenized text, creating a row for every word with associated data, including its lemmatized form, which looks as follows (plus way more columns):

TokenLemma
강한강하+ㄴ
공기가공기+가

Here’s the code I used to get from the raw text to a list of vocab words to accompany my study of the text:

install.packages("udpipe")

library(udpipe)
library(tidyverse)

#load text and remove punctuation
txt <- readLines("my_text.txt")
txt <- gsub('[[:punct:] ]+',' ',txt)

#apply udpipe to text
tokens <- udpipe(txt, object = "korean") 

#separate lemma column by '+' to produce a new column of stems
tokens <- tokens %>%  separate(lemma, into = c("lemma1","lemma2"), 
            sep="\\+", extra = "merge", fill = "right") 

#find top stems
top <- tokens %>%
  count(lemma1) %>%
  arrange(desc(n)) %>%
  top_n(10)

#merge back into tokens list to find vocal words
vocab <- top %>%
  left_join(tokens, by="lemma1") %>%
  select(token, sentence, lemma1, lemma2, upos, xpos)

One thing to note is that you’ll need to remove ‘stopwords,’ aka very common words in your language/text, so that your top words/lemmas aren’t ones you already know. (For example, I ran this on the transcript of an episode of the kdrama Flower of Evil. Out of 3,119 words in the transcript, 369 were associated with the 10 most common roots, including 있다, 없다, 아니다, 하다, 나, 그, and 것.) I downloaded the stopwords list provided here and then filtered those out.

You can use the same script as above, just download the list and add this:

stopwords <- "stopwords-ko.txt"

top <- tokens %>%
  filter(!token %in% stopwords) %>% #remove stopwords
  count(lemma1) %>%
  arrange(desc(n)) %>%
  top_n(10)

And that’s it.

Of course, there’s way more to all of this, first and foremost using the if-tdf algorithm to find words that are more common in your specific text than in a comparison corpus, suggesting they’re the most topical/useful to be familiar with. But to do that, you have to have something to compare your text against. But that’s for another time.

I wait for the bus

I was standing at a bus stop today. My phone was dead. So I started making sentences in Korean as a way to fill the time. 

저는 버스를 기다려요 – I wait for the bus

저는 버스를 기다리고 있어요 – I am waiting for the bus

발이 다져서 못 걷기 테문에 버스로 왔어요 – I came by bus because I hurt my foot and I can’t walk 

It took me a good few minutes to piece together that let sentence. I kept stopping and rearranging the pieces in my head: conjugating 다지다, ordering the sentence, deciding whether to use the subject or object particle for 발, applying the ㄷ irregular.

By the time I had constructed the sentence, the bus arrived, and I was pretty discouraged.

I still wasn’t sure if it was correct, and even if it was correct, if it was the most natural way to say it. And regardless, I realized that there was no way I would have made myself understood to someone else. Not only did it take me forever to arrive at the completed sentence—the person would have been long gone by then—but my pronunciation is atrocious so any mistakes would have thrown the listener off completely. 

I tried to be happy with what I was able to make the sentence at all, and to have more reasonable expectations. That sentence has three clauses, and about 6 or 7 grammatical principals in it at least!

But it made me wonder if I’m okay with progressing in my reading/writing much faster than listening/speaking, and potentially having that always be the case. I could very easily see a scenario in which I can read a Korean news story, but can’t even ask for teokkbokki without freezing. 

When I started studying Korean, I told myself I wasn’t trying to become fluent, because that’s ridiculously hard, and I have nowhere in my life where I can hear or speak Korean without significant effort. But now that I’ve put in the work for a few months, I wonder if I should embrace my read-only approach, or I should be more intentional about speaking. 

Because as much as being able to passively take in Korean culture is amazing, I wonder if it’s cowardly to engage in a language completely alone. I can improve my reading/writing/listening sitting alone in my apartment. But the only way to improve speaking is to have an audience, and that’s requires a whole different set of skills.

Anyway, I don’t have the answer yet.

생각해 볼거요.

괜잖다

I’m on a Lee Jung-suk kick, which started when I watched W on Viki, then moved on to School 2013, then Doctor Stranger, which is awful, and now I’m in the midst of While You Were Sleeping, which apparently is super beloved, but I’m finding pretty boring.

I shouldn’t have liked School 2013 as much as I did because it’s a pretty unsophisticated high school drama, but I’m a sucker for teen dramas anyway, especially when the teen in question is Lee Jung-suk standing up to bullies, and being too cool for school as well a super nice guy. (I basically skipped all the teacher parts, because that really was boring.)

There’s a scene in the beginning of episode 2, where Lee Jung-suk’s character, Ko Nam-soon, arrives home from school. In the space of two days he’s been wrongly accused twice of wrongdoing by the school, and he’s been beaten up twice by the school bully. He’s also had to pick up his drunk, deadbeat Dad, and work a nighttime gig as a delivery boy.

When he arrives home, after being beaten for the second time, he enters his room, lies down on the bed, clearly in pain, and just repeats to himself a few times:

“괜잖다. 괜잖다. 괜잖다.”

“I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

It makes your heart go out to him. And it’s actually one of the few times we see the toll that his life is taking on him, since he usually pulls off the super cool, nothing bothers me, attitude.

Besides for obviously pulling on your heartstrings, I personally liked the scene because of the word he uses. 괜잖다 is used so frequently in Korean (or at last Korean dramas)—mostly in the 괜잖아/요 form in dialogue (as in I’m okay/are you okay?/it’s okay)—that it actually started to mean that in my brain. And I love that feeling when a word in another language stops being a foreign symbol to memorize, but actually starts to mean the thing that it means, if that makes sense.

Also, he uses the word in the infinitive form, and I’m not sure why or if it conveys something different than if he’d conjugated it somehow. The subtitles translated it as “I’m okay” but I think it could just have easily been translated to “It’s okay” because there’s no subject, and It’s making me wonder if there’s actually a distinction to a Korean speaker. Obviously, he wasn’t translating in English in his mind, so what did he mean, did he mean “I’m okay” or “It’s okay” or would he not differentiate?

Adventures in Konglish

My Korean has advanced to the point that I can make out English proper nouns in Korean news, spoken in the wonderful transmorphic way that languages have of twisting themselves into something new, and what some people call Konglish.

Although perhaps in the case of proper nouns, that’s not actually Konglish? I mean, how do you say California if not 갤리포니아, which transliterates/romanizes to kel-li-po-ni-ah?

In any case, in the ongoing mystery of why I haven’t given up on Korean, I have now begun listening/watching video clips on MBC News, because I stumbled upon the fact that they provide the transcripts to 2-3 minute news clips on their site. Which is absolutely gold.

In the sea of illegible (to me) Korean that is the MBC homepage, I use the thumbnails to guide me, and try to find a clip that features Donald Trump, the coronavirus, or something that might give me a few clues as to what the clip is about.

The upside to this is that I now know how to say ‘confirmed cases’, ‘positive results’, and ‘rapidly increasing’ in Korean. The downside is that I die a little of humiliation/anger/sadness each time I listen to the clip.

Which in the grand scheme of things seems like an okay tradeoff?

Tbh my Korean is not good enough to understand any of it, but I input the text in Learning With Texts, translate some of the words, and then listen to it a few times, mostly making out words like Keliponia, Terompe, Korona, Hyuseton, and Pilorida.

I watched 60 hours of Korean dramas in June

I mean that’s the tweet.

I went through my Netflix and Viki history yesterday and counted 60 episodes of Korean dramas that I watched or rewatched in June. It’s not an exact number, because neither platform tells how long you spent on the episode but it balances out.

I watched the entire Kill Me Heal Me (because Park Seo-Joon) on Viki, started watching Memories of the Alhambra (because Hyun Bin) on Netflix, and rewatched most of Stranger, the very first Korean show I ever watched and it absolutely holds up.

I guess I should excuse the ungodly amount of TV I watched on the pandemic, or the fact that that I kind-of self-quarantined for 14 days last month, and/or that I’m studying Korean?

But also, who cares? I’m still al little confused by people who talk about kdramas like they’re all the same thing? I don’t know if they have the concept of prestige TV in Korea, but it seems pretty obvious that there’s a huge range in the genre and quality of Korean shows, and thanks to Netflix and Viki, there’s this insane wealth available to everyone outside Korea.

That being said, the two main shows I watched this month, Kill Me Hill Me and Healer, are as far as I can tell pretty in line with the most basic k-drama tropes.

Both are essentially a romance between a stoic-loner-type man with a tragic backstory, and a spunky/manic-pixie-woman with her own tragic backstory. Amazingly, in both, the two leads knew each other when they were young but don’t remember it (because apparently people can’t remember things before like 8 in Korea?), and in both the woman doesn’t know her true identity. They also both feature evil CEOs, chaebol intrigue, and packs of besuited security guards/gangsters, as is par for the course.

As far as the sexism goes, at least in Healer, the woman’s arc is of parallel importance to the guy’s, whereas in Kill Me Heal Me, she literally exists only to help heal the male lead. Not only that, but he basically tricks her into being his personal maid who’s on call for 24/7, and when she tries pretty rationally to claim that that’s insane, he says well you signed the contract, and also I need you.

Still, the Korean take on the manic-pixie-romantic-heroine (or did the Americans take it from Korea?) is pretty wild. In both Healer and Kill Me, the women are professionals in their late-ish twenties — a psychiatrist and a journalist — with plenty going on in their own lives, and generally try to resist the leading man’s advances at the beginning. They also tend to talk a lot, break rules in very benign ways, embarrass themselves, and dress in normie clothes, to distinguish them from the villain girls/second love interests who are always way better dressed. (Is there an equivalent of being self-deprecating when it’s not about the self?)

But then they just kind of fall into the romantic arc, and nothing else matters? They cry a lot, and pine for their man, and usually save him a few times, often by being brave and standing up to other men, all in the name of love. Although to be fair, that happens to the men too. Because these are romantic dramas obviously.

I’ll save my review of Stranger for another time because I really like that show, and it’s absolutely nothing like these.

To round off the 60 hours, I also started some sappier dramas like Guardian and Revolutionary Love but gave up after one or two episodes, and rewatched scenes from Itaewon Class and Crash Landing on You, though that was actually because I’m studying Korean.