Get Out Your Earplugs, It’s Election Season In Korea

It’s election season in Korea, which means one thing:

You are no longer safe in your own home.

Safe from violence, sure. Safe from danger, yes.

But safe from noise pollution? Not a chance.

From the minute the campaigns officially kicked off last week, Yeongwol has been aurally assaulted. Actually, I’ll back up. To an outsider like me who doesn’t watch the news, the first signs of an election are visual.

Jared and I were cruising down the bike path, weaving around all of the cars that use it for free parking, when we saw them.

“There they are,” Jared said. “The bowers.”

Bowing election campaigners in Korea
Preparing for the next bow.

Lined up on the tiny traffic islands of Yeongwol’s main intersection are several men and women wearing sashes and white gloves. The sashes are numbered according to the number on the ballot for their chosen political party. Each party has a designated position at the intersection and a very serious task.

Their job is to bow at the traffic.

Back and forth, in rain or shine, they are out there during the morning and evening rush hour, bowing and waving. The only variation is that when it rains, they wear matching ponchos instead of sashes.

Bowing campaign in Korea

So there are the bowers, but that’s just the beginning.

Then you’ve got the main feature of the Korean election campaign, which is the electronic billboard/music truck. These trucks are more like miniature parade floats, rolling stages framed by blowout speakers. They are adorned with the candidates’ faces and parked near residential and commercial areas of town.

Kim Won Chang
On Ballot #2 we have Kim Won Chang, whose smiling face interrupts my morning commute.

The main objective of these trucks, as far as I can tell, is to permanently damage my eardrums and make me bitter and angry towards Korean politicians.

If, like me, you ever shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch as a deluded teenager, you’ll have some idea of what I mean. Actually, if you ever entered a mall that contained an Abercrombie & Fitch, you’ll know what I mean. The music from that store could be heard from the opposite end of the hallway. My friend Anne worked there and apparently it was store policy to have the volume set to a level that would make your ears bleed.

The campaign trucks in Korea subscribe to this same policy. I can hear them from my apartment on weekend mornings. I can hear them from my office at school. I hear them on the way to school, on the way home from school, at the grocery store, from the bank, and in my sleep.

Election campaign truck Korea 2012
Notice no-one can bear to stand near it.

I can’t understand the music, but I know the trucks all have one thing in common: they are obscenely loud.

Today brought a new element to the campaign – rabble rousers.

These people aren’t the actual politicians, but they take up positions on opposing street corners and rally the citizens of Yeongwol to chant in unison.

Directing traffic during the Korean campaign
Keep on moving, folks. Nothing to see here.

That is, until the chant-leaders lose interest and stop mid-chant, just when things were getting lively.

People stand around waving signs in the air or clutching balloons, looking oddly like hired hands whose job is to make it look like these politicians have hordes of supporters.

Election supporters in Korea
If nothing else, matching is the key to a successful campaign.

In reality it’s all fairly tame, but for a town of 20,000 like Yeongwol, it’s positively edgy.

I’ve also noticed an increase in the unwelcome Big Brother-style broadcasts that trespass into our apartment. There’s a speaker installed in the ceiling of every unit, where the powers that be are able to make invasive announcements as they please.

They always start with a date and time, but that’s usually where my Korean runs out. I suspect they are informing the residents of local events or speeches.

You know, the kind of thing that could easily be done by posting a notice in the elevator. Not by interrupting the sanctity of my living space.

Korean elections in Yeongwol
So can I blame you for my hearing damage?

I mentioned to my co-teacher that things had gotten really loud since the election campaigns started.

“Yes,” she said, blinking and staring at me as if she was waiting for me to finish.

“I can hear it from the apartment,” I said. “On Sunday morning.”

She appeared confused. “In America, it is not like this?”

Is it? I don’t think so. We’re definitely bombarded with election propaganda in the media. I know people stick those little signs in their lawns or affix bumper stickers to their cars declaring who they’re going to vote for.

It’s annoying, in-your-face and over the top.

But this bowing business, unreasonably loud trucks, and announcements in my home? In America, someone would sue you.

“No,” I said. “It’s not like this.”

“Huh,” she said, surprised.

However. I am a guest in this country, so I should only observe, not complain. (Easier said than done.)

And there’s one part of this election nonsense that I can really get behind: Election day is next Wednesday, and for some unknown reason, that constitutes a public holiday.


Whoever came up with that genius idea, my vote is yours. If I had one, that is.

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  1. The bowing is actually pretty bad ass. They didn’t even have to look at each other and be like- okay, now, bow! And it was still timed perfectly. Also it’s really nice. I bet road rage goes down a lot if people are waving and bowing at you.

    1. I never though of it that way. I have now been paying close attention and am convinced they have some sort of leader who gives a verbal command to initiate the bowing. But I can’t be sure. Additionally, I’ve noticed they don’t bow to me and Jared, because what’s the point, right?

  2. Hi, Lauren! Long time no see. But I’ve enjoyed all of your articles through emails. They make me surprised or awkward or funny because I’ve regarded them as usual and unextraordinary,which are now giving me new acces in objective viewpoints. So I would rather like to recommend those writings to Korean
    people than foreigners.
    Anyway, have a good time.

    1. Hi Gerald! I’m glad you’re still reading. You helped me so much last time that I haven’t needed to go back into the bank yet! I’m sure I’ll see you again before we leave in August. Korea continues to surprise me, but I still enjoy Yeongwol every day. Sometimes it makes me think about what I think is normal back home, and how strange it would probably look to someone from Korea. It’s nice to learn something new about another culture – Korea is very interesting.

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