eyes on the U.S.

A Strange And Resilient Nation Of Soft Targets - A European Take On Boston

Boston, before the Marathon...
Boston, before the Marathon...
Henryk M. Broder

New York 2001. Bali 2002. Djerba 2002. Istanbul 2003. Madrid 2004. London 2005. Mumbai 2006. Boston 2013. "Terror Is Back," trumpeted newspaper headlines in the U.S. – as if it had ever left.

Only minutes after the latest terror attack, German Wikipedia had updated its List of Bomb Attacks.

The list begins on Dec. 13, 1867 with the Clerkenwell Outrage in London when 12 people were killed and 50 injured after a fighter for Irish independence planted a bomb outside a prison wall thinking that it would merely blow a hole in the wall and allow fellow comrades to escape.

It ends – for the time being – last Monday with two bombs, three dead, and over 140 injured at the Boston Marathon.

Take a closer look at that list and two things stand out. Between the London bomb and the second big attack in 1875 that left 83 dead in Bremerhaven, Germany, eight years went by – and it was 45 years before the next major bomb attack, on Wall Street in New York causing 38 deaths.

But the closer you get to the present, the shorter the distances between attacks. This year alone there were 56, including Boston.

The second thing that stands out: over 90% of recorded bomb attacks against installations and gatherings of people, in which car bombs and bombs packed into backpacks are used, get hardly any western media attention since they happen in places perceived as “exotic” – like Aleppo in Syria, Shaqra in Yemen, Rawalpindi in Pakistan, Tikrit in Iraq and Kano in Nigeria.

There are places in Asia and Africa where bomb attacks are as commonplace as traffic accidents are in Europe. What experts on such attacks, like historian like Walter Laqueur, have long warned of has now come to pass – terror has become the weapon of choice of the underdog.

And a second novelty is also in the process of becoming reality. While hijacking airliners may be spectacular, it is also very complicated and risky – but attacks against soft targets like trains, buses, mass events, are a lot easier to carry out. A cynic might even imagine terrorists thinking in terms of price/performance ratio when planning an attack.

Regardless of whoever turns out to be responsible for the Boston bombs, the perpetrators accomplished their goal with relatively little hassle. For the first time since 9/11 Americans don’t feel so safe – visitors at the National Mall in Washington D.C. carrying what appear to be suspiciously large bags are stopped and asked to show what’s in them, and some hotels are even refusing to store bags for guests who have already checked out.

“Attack one of us and you attack us all”

On Tuesday, after American Airlines’s computer system broke down and more than a thousand flights were cancelled as a result, many of the some 100,000 stranded passengers will have wondered if it really was a computer glitch or if it might in some way be related to what happened in Boston.

But there was no panic. No cancellation of events. Comics like Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) and Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) began their TV shows on Tuesday evening with a bow to the people of Boston who had shown courage and willingness to help in a horrific situation.

All around the country, people were singing Neil Diamond’s "Sweet expand=1] Caroline," a song traditionally sung at Boston Red Sox baseball games. It was just the way it was after the attacks on September 11, 2001: people pulling together – in the words of one man: “attack one of us and you attack us all.”

To the European observer here, it always comes as a surprise to see how Americans react like a family in critical situations. You see it everywhere, at gas stations, supermarkets, bakery shops. Instead of the usual – never truly meant – "How you doin" today?" people say hello by asking each other if there’s any news out of Boston. The media broadcast every detail of every new bit of information released by investigators, and everyone knows somebody who knows somebody who ran in the marathon.

But this is also true: the way the country “moved on” and within two days returned to “normality” is enough to leave one speechless.

On Wednesday, legislation initiated by President Obama aimed at making it a little more difficult to acquire guns on the Internet and at weapons fairs by introducing background checks on buyers failed to pass the Senate.

Such controls have long been the norm in gun stores. Obama was so angered by the result of the vote that he made a long statement live on TV about this “Day of Shame,” and accused gun lobbyists of spreading lies. At his side were relatives of the victims of gunmen, including the parents of a little girl shot in the bloodbath along with 19 other children and six teachers at a school in Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, in Dec. 2012.

Yes, America is a strange country. It has an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who pay some $7 billion annually into social security. In some states it’s more complicated to buy a bottle of whiskey than it is to buy a handgun.

The President was forced to apologize for calling California’s Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general in the country,” and public servants have to take an annual test on sexual harassment to learn what not to do or say to a member of the opposite sex when complimenting them.

But at the end of the day it’s a big, wonderful country – dynamic, unfinished, on a perpetual search for itself.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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