I’m the Dojisa of Kyeonggi-do! (Stoop Before Me, Mere Civilian!)

Caveat: I’m not fluent in Korean. I got help with this, but there may be small errors.

And now, another edition of Korean politicians making asses of themselves, and embarrassing their nation!

When I first arrived in Korea, I was cautioned to remember that here, in the case of an emergency, one does not dial 911, but rather 119. (Which is how it is in a lot of other countries, so I’ll resist the urge to make a joke that it is simply “backwards” to us North Americans — like so many other things in Korea.)

However, things have changed. I luckily haven’t had a need to call 119 yet, but then, how we define “need” has changed in Korea recently. A number of new services are now available through 119, at least for residents of Kyeonggi Province, including passport reissuance, problems at work, problems with your property, and problems faced by North Korean callers.

Of course, I am left wondering just how many more people have been added to the taskforce to screen and direct calls, and how much the changes have slowed down the vital response services related to fire, violent attacks, and other life-threatening emergencies.

While I’m no mathematician, I suspect that a sensible mathematical analysis would have revealed a significantly larger strain on the 119 responder workforce to direct calls correctly, as well as a increase in responder lag time — inevitable, given the mathematics involved in scaling up incoming data, but also crucial in life-threatening situations. I’d guess you would have to scale up employees exponentially to keep up with even a non-exponential increase in incoming calls.

So, it seems rather stupid that they didn’t just launch some other help line, say, 229, for less serious emergencies, for which people could wait to have their calls taken. They could even have had the calls routed to the same people who do 119, but have the 119 calls inherently prioritized. So, I’m going to class this as another case of a Nonfunctional System, right off the bat — because it involves truly stupid design.

But it gets better… because, guess who called 119 and was dissatisfied with his service?

Yes, Kim Moonsu, the Dojisa of Kyeonggi-do! That is, the governor of Kyeonggi Province. Now, when middle-aged men in power do anything in this country, it’s bound to go badly, but this is particularly ridiculous:

To summarize, Governor Kim placed a call to the 119 Emergency line. The responder took the call exactly as an emergency help line is supposed to do, politely asking, “Hello, what’s your emergency?”

Governor Kim then started throwing his credentials around, and waiting for… something. It’s not clear why he was calling, though long silences after his announcing his position in the government lead one to suspect that he was waiting for praise, or a little flattery, or something. In any case, Kim didn’t get it, and no wonder: 119, like emergency phone lines all over the world, gets an idiotic number of prank calls in a given week, as well as calls from mentally ill people. I would be extremely surprised if this was the first call the responder had taken from someone claiming to be a high government official.

But the responder kept it polite and businesslike. He kept asking, “What’s your emergency, sir?” Kim’s response was to keep insisting he was the Governor, “the governor, did you hear me? I’m the governor!” and demanding the responder’s name. The responder didn’t give it, but tried to move the caller back to his reason for calling, until it was quite apparent the caller had no reason for calling.

Finally, no doubt thinking of the other poor people who couldn’t get through and were trying to evade assault, rape, or a house fire, the responder asked once more what the emergency was, reminded the caller that this was an emergency line, and hung up.

So Governor Kim called back, hoping to harass the same person again; but 119 doesn’t work that way, so he got another responder. He ended up haranguing someone else. The second person gave his name right away, but didn’t give the name of the previous responder when Moon requested it (because, after all, he had no idea to whom Moon had talked); instead, he asked, “So what’s your emergency?” The responder explained that Kim ought to use the direct line if he wanted to talk to the fire station, since 119 is the emergency line. For emergencies. Soon after, Governor Kim told him (in what is, in Korean terms, impolite speech), “Fine. I’m hanging up.”

Soon after that, the two 119 responders were told they were going to be transferred to the countryside — the traditional Confucian punishment, exile. This didn’t end up happening, of course: there was enough of an uproar after the case was reported in the news, so Kim decided not to punish these two men for doing their jobs properly.

(It gives one pause, when it requires a public uproar to prevent people from being punished for doing their jobs properly, according to protocol, as trained… especially in a field where doing so can mean the difference between life and death for a caller.)

But it gets you to wondering about just how isolated from reality are the men running this society. Indeed, it brings to mind the passage in Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work where he argues that

people who make big decisions that affect all of us–don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility. Being unacquainted with falure, the kind that can’t be interpreted away, may have something to do with the lack of caution that business and political leaders often display in the actions they undertake on behalf of other people. (pg. 203-204.)

Crawford’s argument is that those who are likely to end up running society need to learn a trade, so that they experience their own capacity for unambiguous, undeniable failure enough times so as to develop a sense of humility, and of realistic considerations. Because, quite frankly, it frightens me that a position of so much power could be occupied by someone so little able to understand how the 119-emergency service works, and so little able to imagine how stupid his own behavior sounds in the calls above.

And that he didn’t grasp how stupid it sounds is patently clear, from what I was told: namely, that it was Moon himself (or perhaps a member of his staff) who uploaded the clip, when the uproar occurred! Talk about your failure to grasp reality.

This is, of course, just a stupid individual case, but I think it’s also a revealing glimpse of institutional blindness, to a degree that ought to chill us to the bones. These are the same guys brokering decisions on land development, the placement of nuclear facilities, and so on. That should leave us very, very disquieted.

And, considering that, I see the rabbit hole out there. It’s about algorithmic thinking, which I find is even harder for my Korean students to grasp than critical thinking. When there’s a problem, and I ask them to think of a solution, it is almost always unrealistic, untenable, or patently silly — or, worse, is a simple abjuration of ability to do anything at all.

And not just my students; in fact, a lot of the Korean “Nonfunctional Systems” I’ve discussed on this blog over the years relate to a poor sense of algorithmic thinking. Setting up systems to get things done smoothly is simply not a Korean forte — unless the system is received sui generis.

And sadly, the system received sui generis for running this society is pretty much received from haughty old men throwing their weight around and punishing their “inferiors” as if it were 1799 or 1899 — complete, it seems, even with traditional exile to the countryside for those who displease an older man in a position of power… even for doing one’s job properly and effectively in the presence of said older man, who is simply too ignorant to realize what he’s witnessing.

Doubtless, all of this connects to questions of the conception of agency in Korean society, and… wait, no, as I said, this is a rabbit hole I’m not venturing into today.

Oh, and via The Marmot’s Hole, these parodies are worth a look.

4 thoughts on “I’m the Dojisa of Kyeonggi-do! (Stoop Before Me, Mere Civilian!)

  1. I understood that Kim was calling to check on whether his new policy of having the operators on those lines state their name first was being correctly implemented. When it became clear that it wasn’t, he seems to have gone off the deep end.

  2. Taemin,

    Ah, well, thanks for the clarification — I guess that explains the outburst a little… though, why the policy? It seems a little stupid to me that people taking emergency calls should tell callers their names; after all, if it needs to be figured out who a caller talked to, that is apparently tracked in the system. So what’s the point?

    Is it just more Nonfunctional Systems? Or did some incident spark off this policy change? (Did some rich person who was calling 119 not get his ass kissed enough or something?)

    Either way, the man really did go off the deep end. Like, way, way off.

    By the way, when you tried to write a comment, did you get a darkened screen for a while, until clicking on the page, at which point it resolved to the normal webpage? I’ve just upgraded my WordPress installation and I’m not sure whether it’s only behaving badly on my end, or for everyone out there…

  3. you’re welcome to delete this comment… but I got the dark screen, which disappeared when I clicked anywhere on the screen. I scrolled down, and discovered the youtube clip of the governor’s phone call highlighted, hte way some websites darken the rest of the page when you click on a photo.

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