Thursday, October 23, 2014

Gwanghwamun, Donhwamun, and the Tale of two Royal Roads

Seoul is about to renovate the two streets leading to its main royal gates: Sejong-daero (Gwanghwamun, Gyeongbokgung's gate) and Donhwamun-ro (Donhwamun, Changdeokgung's gate). Needless to say, these are key locations, and authorities have to make sure that they do it right, and that to start with, there is a consistent and sustainable vision for Seoul's future.


*
In the case of Sejong-daero, the idea is to attach Gwanghwamun Square to the Western side, which somehow means a return to the initial plan of a wider area in front of the Sejong Cultural Center. The main motivation seems to be money: the massive foot traffic on the square would generate much more revenue there. Why not indeed? Let's see what it means when you consider the two most likely scenarii:
  • If the plaza is extended westwards: 6 lanes of traffic will disappear, and I'm perfectly okay with that, but only if all impacts are taken into account, and I'm not sure that's the case. To be consistent, Seoul authorities must have a clear strategy to reduce car traffic downtown - like most major cities. Unfortunately, several projects (e.g. from Jahamun to the Yulgok Tunnel) seem bound to generate more bottlenecks in a near future.
  • If a new plaza is built to the west instead of the central one: we are back to square(!) one and a huge highway in the middle of the city - 12 lanes of traffic! It would destroy not only Seoul's most valuable perspective (Sejongdaero-Gwanghwamun-Gyeongbokgung-Bugaksan-Bukhansan), but also Seoul's most vital pedestrian connector downtown (see links at the end of this post).
(addendum 20141025) Rendering of the project where the Gwanghwamun Plaza is moved westwards, recreating the central highway that used to ruin downtown Seoul (source "광화문광장, 세종문화회관 쪽으로 이전 추진" (Hankyoreh 20140930). A total urban disaster, but maybe the actual aim of the game is to prevent demonstrations, the only case where it would make sense (much easier to close the area with much fewer troops).
I'm against the plan to move Gwanghwamun Plaza next to Sejong Center: makes more money, but destroys royal perspective + cars rule again - 20141011 twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/520781390309126144


*

In the case of Donhwamun-ro, the idea is to boost tourism in a major but under-exploited historic neighborhood. A couple of years ago, I applauded the planned destruction of the two gas stations that faced the gate, but also shared concerns about the impacts of the Yulgok Tunnel on area. In this case, I'm at the same time glad that, at long last, the Changdeokgung-Jongmyo axis is considered as a key asset, and very much worried about how the whole project could backfire if handled carelessly: this is typically one of these time capsules you want to deal with carefully. How to revive the area without 'bukchonizing' it, without creating an artificial touristic hotspot and worse, a short-lived speculation heaven?

This area has already significantly evolved over the past decade. Here are the neighborhoods directly concerned:
  • At the center, covering Donhwamun-ro itself: Waryong-dong and Myo-dong (the former also includes large sections of the palace, and even a part of Jongmyo - otherwise mostly in the Hunjeong-dong sphere). 
  • To the north: Wonseo-dong and the Palace
  • To the west, towards Unhyeongung and Insa-dong: Unni-dong, Nagwon-dong, Donui-dong, and the already endangered Ikseon-dong.
  • To the east, towards Jongmyo: Gwonnon-dong, Bongik-dong
  • To the south: Jongno-3-ga and Cheonggyecheon
Let's see this new project* in details:
  • Where the gas stations used to be, an exhibition hall for traditional culture and a Gugak Arts Center will be constructed, creating a hanokish triangle with the gate. How to feed these cultural venues without depriving existing structures remains to be seen, but it's clearly a much more UNESCO-friendly scenery than the love motels behind.
  • The 600 m stretch between Donhwamun and Cheonggyecheon will be "reconstructed", and I'm afraid this street could lose its vintage charm. This is a perfectly proportioned street lined with old trees, so please don't try to 'reconstruct' it. You wouldn't want to ruin everything the Jogyesa-way (its streetside now a sanitized disneyland), or even the Jeongdong-gil-way (see the "Jeongdong-kill" asphalt mess). On the positive side, Donhwamun-ro could become pedestrian, like Yonsei-ro**. 

Seoul should remember that it put the restoration of its fortress on hold because the UNESCO didn't think that it hadn't been done properly until then... the priority here is to secure the area from speculative alterations.


Joseon Seoul: in today's KJD, more on the restoraion of Donhwamun Royal Road - 20141023 twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/525086786767179776
Bonus: it would be nice to avoid the usual touristic fakes. I'm shivering just thinking about yet another embarrassing costumed reenactment. You know, after the changing of the guards at Deoksugung or Gyeongbokgung, something like 'watch the King perform his royal walk along the royal road'?

That's okay if you want to entertain duty-free shoppers on Incheon Airport's Airstar Avenue, but don't you think Changdeokgung and Jongmyo deserve something better?


*

See also:

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* "Royal road in Seoul will be restored" (Korea JoongAng Daily 2014/10/23)
** see "Yonsei-ro the first street in Seoul to ban cars in its transportation mix"

---UPDATE 20141025---
I added an illustration of the future Gwanghwamun Plaza, which clearly shows the return to a central highway.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cheong Alive, Jeonju Kicking

Last week, we had a fantastic time in a Jeonju blessed with a perfect weather... 


Autumn in Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do - 20141010
twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/520443719456026625
... and a perfect alibi for returning to that lovely city: the 2014 Jeonju International Sori Festival (see links below).


Official poster of the 2014 JISF (Oct. 8-12) - sorifestival.com
I was specially looking forward to watching 'Cheong Alive', the opening concert:


Cheong Alive (淸 ALIVE), the inaugural concert
I knew that PARK Jechun and Miyeon would give their best, not only for Jeonju and Korea, but also for the country's younger generations and for the future, particularly in the wake of the Sewol tragedy. They delivered such an incredibly powerful creation that we came back the following night to watch it again, this time with 600 Korean kids in the audience.

'Cheong' is the SIM Cheong of Simcheongga, a great pansori classic that had already been adapted and updated in countless ways (some of which quite stimulating, like in "Bitter, Sweet Seoul"). In the story, the daughter of SIM sacrificed herself for her father, but comes back from the depths of the sea to become an Empress.

It took guts to cast only young pansori singers for the opening ceremony of such a prestigious festival, but the young talents were up to the task, and 'Cheong Alive' follows on from a long tradition, without forgetting to honoring pansori greats. Master KIM Cheong-man, the janggu player in that amazing 'Yeourak' Super Session (see "In the zone with Miyeon and Park Je chun"), even chaperons the younger generation during a multisensorial experience that's much more than a concert, an opera, and a musical wrapped in one. Bridging generations and lifting pansori to new territories, Miyeon's music claims you from the first to the last second, and keeps haunting you long afterwards.


'Cheong Alive', an amazing pansori musical for the Sori Festival opening ceremony in Jeonju. Bravo Park Jechun and Miyeon!
20141008 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/519813170731315201
*
Mind you, I also crave for more traditional pansori, and loved KIM Yeon's take at another one of the five surviving great stories of pansori, Heungbuga, where humor plays a much larger role.




*

But the Sori Festival is not just Korea's best festival for traditional music, and if Songlines lists it among the 25 best in the world, that's also because it is truly international, and proposes very high quality music that don't often reach Korean shores (that's all about heralding cultural diversity, remember?*). I'm sure Jechun loved the incredible percussionists in these Iranian and Armenian groups:


From Iran, Sialk Ensemble - 20141010 twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/520444186571460608


Duduk music from Armenia - 20141010 twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/520592506069594113
*

The beauty of having festival venues, cultural assets, and great eateries scattered across the hanok village is that you can always find quiet or busy spots, depending on your mood:
Visitors and characters from all horizons roaming Jeonju hanok village. Sori Festival full throttle - 20101009
twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/520057631625314304
Aaah Jeonju... special mention for the doenjang (with the zucchini leaves, bottom left) - #koreanfood - 20141010 twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/520373873405988864

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Of course, beyond the festival and the hanok maeul, there's a lot to see in Jeonju. 


The Nambu market deserves a triple visit for its outdoor street along Jeonjucheon, its covered section, and its trendier upper floor.




Jeonju Nambu Market - 20141010 twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/520480117097644033
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On the other side of the river, Dongseohak-dong is evolving into a arty neighborhood full of new cultural hotspots, but like in many other parts of the city, original vintage shop signs are preserved, and sometimes old trades, such as this time-capsulesque cushion puffing place:
One of Korea's few surviving cushion puffing services, in Jeonju - 20141011 twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/520717462656937988
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We went on to an amazing trip across Southern Korea, but more about that later.

I'm very glad I could enjoy Jeonju with old and new friends, and wish Chip were there as well, to taste the makgeolli we prepared together last July for the festival inauguration:

Preparing makgeolli with friends last July (see "Soriju seems to be the sweetest word")


*

See all posts related to Jeonju and to the Sori Festival, including:

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* talking about waves and shores, see "Heralding cultural diversity - a stronger and more sustainable Korean wave (Part I)", Part II, Part III

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Happy Seoul

Back to Seoul! Let's celebrate with a new Happy video following Pharrell Williams' footsteps. This one features more walks of life (from monks to expats), more sites (from Bukchon to Mecenatpolis or the Floating Island), and far fewer product placements than a PSY video (no, the tribute to Gangnam Style doesn't count)!



YouTube-wise, this version is quickly catching up with the previous leading version, with 37,000 views since September 30, compared to 56,000 since March 14 for the 'Happy' featuring Hong Seok-cheon:



At that level too, we're not in PSY territory, but it's really great to see Seoul clap along!

#HappySeoul on Facebook: facebook.com/groups/seoulishappy

Because I'm happy to see so many faces and places represented.

I'll add a final clap to a yet older video. Also made in Seoul, also based on music. Not from the megastar Pharrell Williams, but from the Icelandic group Sigur Rós. The title, "VARÚÐ", means "caution", and the video (by Nils Clauss with Namui Park) will move you in different ways. I want you to follow this homeless living in the park behind Yongsan Station until the very end of the credits, because that's also about feeling "like a room without a roof", feeling "like happiness is the truth", knowing "what happiness is to you", feeling "that's what you wanna do":



SIGUR RÓS | VARÚÐ. music video from Nils Clauss on Vimeo.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

'Comfort Women': No Resolution Without Resoluteness. From Everyone, Please.

Time for an update on the 'Comfort Women' issue (the last mention was in my focus on "Abductors talking abductions - Revisionists talking revisions" - 20140618). Today, I'm using the euphemism instead of 'sexual slavery system for the Japanese Imperial Military' for a good reason.

What you should remember:
1) more than ever, justice must win, not nationalism
2) undeterred by an evasive US, Shinzo Abe's pushing his revisionist agenda harder than ever
3) South Korea at long last forced to give up its own inaction


*

1) More than ever, Justice must win, not nationalism:

To avoid any confusion, let's start with a reminder of where I stand. I wrote the following lines in December 2011, after attending the 1,000th "Wednesday demonstration" in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (see "One Thousand Wednesdays"):


"This is not about nationalism, and this is certainly not about Korea vs Japan, but about Japan vs Justice, and about Japan vs its own future. Crimes were committed and victims simply expect justice. Japan must face history in order to face the future, and its leaders cannot hide the truth to Japanese citizens any longer.

I've said the same thing about other issues: this is also about saving Japan. And if I joined the protesters, it's also because I love Japan and because I can't accept to see a minority of die hard ultra-conservatives setting a corrupt agenda and betraying the Japanese people.

And to Korean ultra-nationalists who try to hijack this case for their own corrupt agenda, I say: clean your own mess first, and restore the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

More than ever, Justice must win, not nationalism. And if Korea plays the nationalist card on Imperial Japan sexual slavery issues, Justice will never prevail for the victims.


2) Undeterred by an evasive US, Shinzo Abe's pushing his revisionist agenda harder than ever:

We've already seen how short-lived were the hopes of seeing the USA, at long last, act as a leader true to its ideals. If at the local level the multiplication across the US of memorials for the victims of sexual slavery under Japanese rule keeps building pressure, it will take much more to make the Japanese people demand change from their political leaders.

Now confident that the US administration won't pose any problem, Shinzo Abe has shifted gears to go even faster and further. The time was ripe for more changes: as expected, the Abenomics illusion is showing its limits, and he needs a boost to remain in power and push his main agenda, ABEIGNomics. The smokescreen, this time? "Womenomics": a sure bet for Japan, where enabling more women would immediately fuel economic growth.

Abe's recent cabinet reshuffle speaks volumes about his priorities: a record number of women for show (5/18), and a record number of Nippon Kaigi members for action (15/18).


80% of Shinzo Abe's cabinet belong to right wing Japan Conference (advocate history revisionism)
Nippon Kaigi supports Yasukuni visits, opposes Japan's human rights protection law...
twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/507693615737352192
see also "Abe's reshuffle promotes right-wingers" (Korea JoongAng Daily 20140905)

If you don't know Nippon Kaigi, also known as 'Japan Conference', that's the official vehicle of Imperial Japan revival and history revisionism*. Joining Nippon Kaigi is pledging allegiance to the worst of the worst: rewriting history, glorifying war crimes, promoting ultra-nationalism at school, repudiating Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, peace treaties, and apologies, restoring militarism in and removing pacifism from the Constitution, abolishing the human rights law... and of course finishing with democracy by restoring the Emperor as the supreme Shinto leader.

Becoming a Nippon Kaigi member also means securing a career in an overwhelmingly peaceful country where the political system remains controlled by a tiny but unassailable fascist minority.

Nippon Kaigi claims 30,000 members, mainly from Abe's conservative LDP, but also from opposition parties. Of course, they control the key Ministry of Education, held by none other than the Secretary General of the Nippon Kaigi discussion group at the Diet, Hakubun Shimomura. This outspoken revisionist never hid his agenda. Florilege:
  • "the 67 years since the end of World War II have been a history of Japan’s destruction", 
  • "the “departure from the postwar regime” slogan that the previous Abe administration put forward means revising all aspects of Japan’s modern history, including the Tokyo War Tribunal view of history, the Kono Statement, and the Murayama Statement"...
Again, for these guys, the 'Comfort Women' issue is the most damning one, the one they're spending the most energy on when it comes to rewriting history. And they love to see their messages carried by women. Abenomics served as a smokescreen to push ABEIGNomics? Womenomics will help cover up one of the most outrageous attacks on women's rights (WomenIGNomics, then).

Significantly, the two main women promoted during the cabinet reshuffle happen to be among the most vocal Japanese women denying Imperial Japan sexual slavery. As if Nippon Kaigi was not 'right' enough, both the new Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi and the new LDP policy chief** Tomomi Inada pal around with the head of Japan's neo-nazi party, Kazunari Yamada:


"Neo-Nazi photos pose headache for Shinzo Abe" (The Guardian - 20140909)

I don't know how to make it clearer: there is simply no difference between the neo-Nazi Kazunari Yamada, who denies the Holocaust and regrets that Germany made illegal the Nazi salute, and Shinzo Abe, who not only denies Imperial Japan war crimes but openly supports war criminals (and who, by the way, also happens to be the Secretary General of the Diet Members' Caucus for the "Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership", the Imperialist (hard)core of the right-wing movement including Nippon Kaigi***).



facebook.com/seoulvillage/posts/685069914903824
If you had any doubt regarding Shinzo Abe's support for Imperial Japan war crimes, read this: "Abe praised Class-A war criminals for being 'foundation' of Japan's prosperity" (The Asahi Shimbun 20140827)

Again, this unapologetic and indefensible fascist is Japan's worst enemy, and voting for Shinzo Abe and his friends is voting in favor of war criminals and Imperial Japan, and against peaceful, postwar Japan.

The choice is simple for the Japanese people: if you don't subscribe to the Nippon Kaigi agenda, vote for people who are not members. And if you want Japan to declare its long overdue independence from Imperial Japan, demand every politician to denounce it.

Needless to say, neither the US nor the rest of the international community can support Abe's agenda and let Japan sink.

Just like it's time for Japan to declare its independence from Imperial Japan, it's time for the US to declare its independence from Japanese hardliners.

That's possible. It's happening right now with Israel, where hawks have pushed so far that they are losing key supports in D.C.: Americans are starting to understand that there's a J Street alternative to the AIPAC, and that the only way of truly supporting Israel is to denounce its government when it's wrong (see "Thank you, Bibi, for shooting yourself in the foot").
Meet the New Russia: same as the old USSR.
Meet the New Japan: same as the old Imperial Japan.
#Novorossiya - #ABEIGNomics
twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/508417978224758784

I understand that the US is willing to share military costs in Asia with Japan, but as I wrote in the Asia Pacific Bulletin, "the United States must reassure Asia that it will not condone Japanese historical revisionism, nor will it support an expanded Japanese military without providing wider safeguards to the region".

More than ever, the surest and quickest way of saving Japan is to stand for a universal cause that reaches beyond borders and nationalism, to stand for human rights and women's rights, and to demand Japan to resolve the issue of sexual slavery for the Imperial Japan military.


3) South Korea at long last forced to give up its own inaction:


Park Geun-hye and her government are often criticized for not engaging with Shinzo Abe, but that wouldn't change Japan's most radical PM since WWII. Regardless of its relations with Japan, what South Korea must do is show the right example by better facing its own troubled past.

For the moment, Park Geun-hye isn't in a position to give history lessons to Shinzo Abe. I often said that she has the potential and the historical duty to change things across East Asia. If she, of all people, showcases a willingness to set the record straight on the troubled decades that followed the Japanese colonial rule, including the ones when her father Park Chung-hee was in charge, she can not only spur national reconciliation, but also send very powerful messages to the Japanese people and to other nations.

What does she risk? She's already a lame duck not running for any mandate, and losing popular support. Such a courageous move would also make more credible her claims to see the Sewol mess fully and fairly investigated.

Furthermore, current events provide the most perfect alibi to dig into Korea's darkest moments.

And guess what: it has something to do with 'Comfort Women'.

Important reminders:

  • 'Comfort Women' (Wianbu in Korean) is the euphemism used to refer to Imperial Japan's international sexual slavery system for the military.
  • In the years that followed the occupation, the term was also often used to refer to the Camp Town prostitutes for the American and U.N. military in Korea, including by Korean media and officials:


Registration campaign of 'Wianbu' for U.N. forces
  • In dirt poor, post-war Korea, many women living near U.S. bases would turn to prostitution as last resort, a phenomenon well depicted through Myung-suk's character in Yu Hyun-mok's Obaltan (and well discussed the other day at Barry's Seoul Film Society, following the screening of the 1961 movie adaptation of Yi Beom-seon's short story).
  • The Korean government played an active role, providing structures, registering women, monitoring the spread of STDs... Park Chung-hee even institutionalized the system, sex trade representing a very important source of foreign currencies, and generating directly and indirectly up to a quarter of Korea's GNP (in very deed, a Gross National Product).


In this scene of Obaltan (1961), two men mock at a 'Western Princess' while Cheol-ho (Kim Jin-kyu) observes. His own sister sells her body to U.S. servicemen.
  • The need to distinguish actual 'Comfort Women' (sex slaves for the Imperial Japan military) and Camp Town prostitutes (more and more often called 'Yanggongju' or 'Yankee Princess') became even more evident in the early 1990s, when surviving sex slaves came out and brought international attention to this side of Imperial Japan war crimes. That's also when the two women's rights associations split: former 'Comfort Women' on one side, former prostitutes on the other.
  • If sex slavery survivors have become national hero 'Halmoni' waiting for a resolution from Japan, the former sex laborers face their own struggles (e.g. "At US base, S. Korean ex-prostitutes face eviction" - AP 20140906), and are still seeking from the Korean government some recognition, and in certain cases reparation for mistreatment, forced labor, or other human rights violations (even teaming with actual 'Comfort Women' for the occasion - e.g. "Former Korean 'comfort women' for U.S. troops sue own government" - Reuters 20140711).
  • In ever the politically divided Korea, right-wing factions keep trying to hijack 'Comfort Women' issues, tainting it with anti-Japanism, and undermining the cause by bringing the Japanese population behind its revisionist leaders, while left-wing factions try to use 'American Comfort Women' (Miguk Wianbu) to promote their anti-American crusades.
  • In a disturbing contrast, as South Korea started to embrace the cause of its 'Halmoni' in the early 90s, it also opened its gates to immigration, and the cases of sex trafficking and slavery multiplied, particularly those involving victims from the Philippines. 
  • By not facing reality and by sweeping problems under the rug, the nation keeps blurring the lines and courting criticism from Japanese revisionists, who love to paint 'Comfort Women' as willing prostitutes, and to say that what Imperial Japan did happen everywhere else. As if Germans said that the Holocaust didn't exist, or that 'Holocaust' should be a generic term referring to common abuses that are inherent to war times.
  • Even if the epithet has been used to refer to 'prostitutes for the U.S. / U.N. military', 'Comfort Women' should remain the euphemism referring to sex slaves for the Imperial Japan military. And if cases of forced labor or sex slavery happened after that, they should be resolved immediately and completely, become national causes if needed, just like abuses in the army (a recurring tragedy that's only nowadays starting to be considered a priority).
*

If you want Justice, you cannot hide inconvenient truths. Yes, you may face critics, like the Asahi Shimbun: they recently apologized for the publication in 1992 of the questionable testimony of Seiji Yoshida regarding the 'Comfort Women' issue, and of course conservative newspapers seized the opportunity to slam their progressive competitor and renew their revisionist mantras (e.g. " EDITORIAL / Asahi Shimbun makes long-overdue corrections over ‘comfort women’" - The Yomiuri Shimbun 20140908). But you can't take a stand without a minimum of consistency.

South Korea will much better defend the victims of Imperial Japan sex slavery if at home, it truly stand for human rights, for women's rights, and against history revisionism.


---ADDENDUM 20140912---
If you still give Shinzo Abe and Nippon Kagai the benefit of the doubt, and if still you believe that Sanae Takaichi didn't know what she was doing when she posed with a neo-Nazi leader, know that she also praised Adolf Hitler in her book: "Japan: Adolf Hitler Book Haunts Interior Minister Sanae Takaichi" (IB Times 20140911




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* see for instance "What's the 'Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi)'?" (Akahata Sunday edition, July 9, 2006 via Japan Press Weekly
** NB: Inada is not part of the cabinet (my mistake on these tweets):


When Shinzo Abe picks a woman in government...: the ultra-nationalist Tomomi Inada, a negationist of Imperial Japan sex slavery. twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/507048157595713538
And that outrageous Tomomi Inada is supposed to promote "Cool Japan"!! Who said Shinzo Abe had no sense of humor? twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/507048749420384256
Japan's new ministers Tomomi Inada and Sanae Takaichi: 2 women negating Imperial Japan sex slaver! ("Japan's Abe reshuffle cabinet: WSJ live blog" 20140903) twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/507050640036478976
Tomomi Inada and Sanae Takaichi also posed with neo-nazi chief Kazunari Yamada ("Abe Cabinet Members in Neo-Nazi Photo-Op Fail" The Diplomat 20140909) twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/509350411451387904
*** e.g. "News Analysis: Abe unifies far-right ideology in upper echelons of Japanese politics" (Xinhua 20140908), "Abe Shinzo, a Far-Right Denier of History" (Narusawa Mune, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 11, Issue 1, No. 1, January 14, 2013)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Freeways as Dividers, Connectors, and Destinations

On Chuseok, I have a special thought for Korea Expressway teams. This is their busiest moment of the year, and they have no time to spend with their families because they want to make sure you do it safely.

Last spring, I visited their facilities in Gungnae-dong, Bundang-gu, Seongnam-si, Gyeonggi-do. A great moment! That's where they monitor the traffic for the whole nation, and where they broadcast 176 updates every day.


And live from Korea expressways main broadcasting station
twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/482092363821481984
From Korea Expressway's control room
twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/488670603504005120


They're also right at Seoul's main gateway. You know how much I love to wander along Seoul alleyways, but I must confess that I enjoyed overlooking tens of lines of traffic from the rooftop of that tollgate:



This four-decade-old structure stretches for 400-500 m over Korea's main backbone: Gyeongbu Expressway, a.k.a. Expressway No. 1. The site reminded me how freeways can be at the same time fantastic connectors, great dividers, and awesome destinations.



*** HIGHWAYS AS CONNECTORS ***


Korean regions are much better interconnected than they were a couple of decades ago, and from 3,762 km in 2013, the national expressway network will grow to 6,160 km by the end of the decade. If the old Seoul-Busan diagonal remains clearly visible, the grid will be more balanced, with 7 North/South and 9 East/West axes. All points on mainland shall be within only 30 mn from an exit.



The network now and tomorrow (Korea Expressway Corporation - ex.co.kr)



When Beijing's building its 7th ring road (940 km), Korea's capital region is still working on its 2nd belt: after the "100", Sudogwon's "400" will connect Incheon, Ansan, Songsan, Bongdam, Osan, Ichon, Gangsang, Yangpyeong, Hwado, Pocheon, Paju, and Gimpo.





*** HIGHWAYS AS DIVIDERS ***


Of course, highways are not necessarily a sign of progress, and many in Korea still believe that adding roads is the only solution to all traffic problems. And even before talking about induced demand: how many times did we see public transportation systems be considered only after the construction of a New Town?

Cities and highways are mutually exclusive, that's why everything must be made to prevent them from meeting. That's also why Los Angeles cannot be considered a city, and Seoul is struggling to survive. And don't try to limit direct contacts at ground level by elevating the roads: it only worsens the situation (see for instance "Along Hongjecheon, my way or the highway").

Beltways that actually relieve urban centers can be a lesser evil, but even they can increase traffic and environmental damage (see for example the not really discreet Incheon-Ansan section of Seoul's second belt in the 2nd part "Connectivity, Continuity and Consistence" of my "Songdo, DMC: sequence is of the essence" trilogy).

Now back to that tollgate and Expressway No. 1. The view below illustrates how that Amazon of concrete divides the landscape even more dramatically than a natural or political border - hard to tell if the odds for a pedestrian to survive a crossing are better than at the DMZ: 


Live from Seongnam, on the top of Seoul's gateway, Korea's main tollgate (3M cars on a rush hour).
twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/482090698359832576

(NB: West to the right, East to the left)
The contrast is even more spectacular on Google Maps:
  • To the East, Bundang stretches its 'apateu' blocks around Tancheon stream.
  • To the much West, from the green slopes of Gwanggyosan, the narrow valleys of Gungnae-dong and Geumgok-dong join Daewangpangyo-ro, a road parallel to the freeway from Geumgok I.C. (South) to Seoul beltway #100 via Pangyo New Town (North). 
  • In the center, Expressway No. 1 and its tollgate bulge (reminds me of the boa that swallowed an elephant in 'Le Petit Prince'):


The tollgate from above (NB: West to the left, East to the right)

I clearly remember watching, during the nineties, Bundang New Town rise from a sea of cranes, while the suburbs on the Western side remained stuck in time - and the mountains relatively spared.

I also remember wondering why natural embankments were not included in the New Town's original master plan: instead of the usual sinister noise barriers, green slopes would have made that side of the freeway much more pleasant. I knew that it took more space, but when you build a town from scratch, you shouldn't compromise on key elements that impact its sustainability and its perception both from the inside and from the outside...

Pangyo New Town didn't fare much better a couple of years later (see "Pangyo from scratch to crash"): noise barriers? checked - elevated highway? checked... Of course urban planners didn't seize the opportunity to cover a wide section of the highway between Bundang and Pangyo...

But I've already spilled way too much venom on Korea's New Towns here and there, and they're not the topic of the day. Furthermore, 'greenfield new towns' like Bundang now belong to the past (see "New Town out, Redevelopment in, back to the Urban Jungle").



*** HIGHWAYS AS DESTINATIONS ***


Many people see highways as tunnels in time, a moment when life is suspended between a departure and a destination, a lost moment. But the path is a destination in itself, and freeways remain an eternal source of inspiration - beyond the vast 'road movie' culture.

Smooth roads, green rest areas equipped with showers, lounges, and free wi-fi... the freeway experience in Korea has nothing to do with the nightmare of yore, and the people in charge are fully aware of importance of always improving safety and quality, of making the most of existing infrastructures (e.g. solar energy production on abandoned roads). They truly care about - yes - your happiness.

So if you drive during this Chuseok break, even if you are stuck in thick traffic, relax.

And don't hesitate to stretch time. Don't forget to take a break every two hours, the rest areas are also here for that. Why not opt out and back in, seize the opportunity and discover a part of Korea you didn't plan to see?


With my new friend in Gangwon-do. Her potatoes were fantastic, and her joy illuminated our day.
twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/483117975265087488
(Last June, during a trip in Gangwon-do, we were invited to Gwirae-myeon, Wonju-si. Now bypassed by a bigger road, the village has seen many shops and restaurant close, which gives it a very special atmosphere)


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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New Town out, Redevelopment in, back to the Urban Jungle

Korean economy badly needs a boost, and the government opted for a quick fix with long lasting effects: in "the republic of apartments", easing apartment regulations always sounds like giving junkies one massive free shot (about this most typical Korean addiction, see for instance "The Republic Of Apartments", or "Inhuman, all too human Seoul").

This at a moment when the real estate market got a bit sounder, many empty apartments created by new town bubbles eventually finding tenants. And what to say of the recent easing of DTI (Debt To Income) and LTV (Loan To Value) ratios as household debt keeps skyrocketing (over 8% last year)... 

But this is less about supply and demand rationale than about giving work to construction conglomerates, and a boost to voters' morale. I don't have the details of the 30% of the 2,400 regulations that shall be dumped by 2017, but social welfare is unlikely to gain ground to short term profits. Typically, the proportion of apartments reserved for rentals in any given block will be reduced, and there will be fewer constraints on unit sizes. LH Corporation's key assets will be sold to private developers, who really seem to be the ones calling the shots here.

Not very P.C. for an administration supposed to fight speculation and defend the interest of the weakest citizens. Interestingly, the very day the set of measures were announced, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon met with Deputy PM Choi Kyung-hwan, a first meeting at such level since 2006, to discuss collaboration on infrastructures, including facilities along Hangang riverside, and a second cable car on Namsan*.

The best measure in the package is the end of what I call the 'greenfield new towns' (see "Wet eyes for wetlands and urban mirages"): instead of improving existing neighborhoods, authorities prefer to create artificial cities ex nihilo and extra muros because land is cheaper. Now hopefully, Korea shall significantly reduce the risk of urban nonsenses.

The most anticipated measure is the reduction of minimum age requirements by up to ten years for the reconstruction of apartment buildings, which means that the bed towns erected around the Olympics in the late eighties shall be replaced much earlier.
 
Korea to cut construction regulations: no more satellite New Town, but apartment redevelopment accelerated / Urbanism deregulation means that apartment blocks in Sanggye, Mokdong or Jamsil will be redeveloped much sooner - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/506611541722935296
This set of maps shows the chronology of the development of habitations in Seoul (before 1980, during the 80s, 90s, and noughties).

Among the 1987 projects that could be up for reconstruction in 2017: Sanggye-dong (Jugong 3 blocks), Gaepo-dong (Useong 3 blocks), Mok-dong (5 blocks), or Apgujeong-dong (Hyundai 3 blocks). I wouldn't be surprised if the upscale Apgujeong moved first, and made the most of these tailor-suited gifts. Nowon seems also ripe, and there's a shortage of big apartments in this former bed town gone middle class. Some apartment blocks will grow taller and more exclusive, others will struggle to find investors. 

What bugs me most is what will happen to the rest of Seoul. This remains a non-zero sum where even winners in the short term can lose in the long run. Giving free reins to private developers could help speculation return to LEE Myung-bak-era levels, and torpedo the nascent efforts to develop a more consistent and sustainable urban planning. 

The risks are well known, and the cases of urban failures across Seoul already well documented. This is the last opportunity to apply a sustainable vision for urbanism in Seoul, and certainly not the moment to let anyone do anything anywhere. 

Good or bad, the years that come will define Seoul's cityscape for good, and local authorities cannot wash their hands of the future of the capital and its citizens.

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* e.g. Korea JoongAng Daily 20140902: "Apartments to be rebuilt sooner" and "Deputy prime minister, mayor talk cooperation"
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