Monday, February 19, 2018

Year of the Underdog

This is, so far, the image I'd keep from the Pyeongchang Olympics: Lee Sang-hwa and Nao Kodaira enjoying a victory lap together*. Beyond the victory of the Japanese underdog over the Korean double olympic champion, the victory of fair-play and mutual respect, timeless values in sport, even more admirable for a decade-old rivalry in uber-competitive speed-skating. 

'Even more than the joint North Korea - South Korea ice hockey team forced down a coach's throat, the genuine mutual respect between Nao Kodaira and Lee Sang-hwa in speed skating short track can help bring two people together' (20180219 -

So in the land of bballi-bballi, in times of over-speeding news cycles, I'd like to pause and enjoy olympics as they were meant to be. And I sincerely hope that Olympic Athletes from Russia will not be allowed to parade under their national flag for the closing ceremony, particularly after the latest doping scandal (in curling, of all sports!).

And don't forget your gift for the new year: the free ebook of my 2007 short story "Year Of The Dog".

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* no, not that obvious one (see "Closing doors at Pyeongchang's Opening Ceremony")

Friday, February 9, 2018

Closing doors at Pyeongchang's Opening Ceremony

If Olympics are always a mix of sports, culture, business, and politics, Pyeongchang definitely amped up the latter. So KIM Yuna, who a couple of weeks ago was bound to be the queen of the night, let KIM Yo-jong steal the show.

The show? For the Opening Ceremony, a giant display - literally - of Korean technology, with a few moments of awe (constellation hologram, drone swarm), too rare sparks of emotion (the maemil Arirang), and the odd comic relief (the Bermuda delegation freezing their bermudas off - a red-nosed flag bearer followed by a limping old timer). The audience was totally obliterated by the LED screens put behind every seat, which contributed to the visual animation but castrated the atmosphere. When the show was over, we discovered their existence, trapped in the final airpocalyptic fireworks smog.

We did get the photo ops (almost) everybody wanted: North and South Korean athletes holding the same flag and carrying one flame, US and North Korean leaders smiling in the same picture.

'Korea together!' (20180209 -

'BREAKING - North Korea bombing the US! Well, photobombing to start with (KIM Yong-nam, Mike Pence, KIM Yo-jong at Pyeongchang 2018 opening ceremony)' (20180210 -
That last picture probably proved costly: Mike Pence specifically demanded not to be seated as the same table as / close to the DPRK pair, to prevent the kind of photo op disasters that happened yesterday (a boon for KCNA propaganda). Was MOON Jae-in fulfilling a pledge to North Korea? He certainly strained relationships and trust with the US at the worst moment... and added another bromance between Shinzo Abe and the White House.

'Panda diplomacy, Korea style: Moon Jae-in tried everything to mate Mike Pence and Kim Yo-Jong, to no avail. VP not in the mood, left angry' (20180209 -
Over three years ago, in a 'twittering baekduology' focus on KIM Yo-jong (see 'Cherchez la femme'), I wondered if she could become "The next Dear Leader or just a Cheer Leader? Kim The Fourth or Jang The Second?" 

Yesterday, we were granted #rareglimpses (sorry James P.!) of her complex personality: all kind smiles when she let Yong-nam seat first or shook hands with Jae-in, yet cunningly confident as she relished victorious firsts on enemy ground. 

And yesterday, the South may have handed KIM Yo-jong a status of stateswoman on a silver platter.

'Lil sis Kim Yo-jong triumphant ahead of meeting ROK minister' (20180209 -
'Kim Yo-jong pretty much steals Pyeongchang 2018 the way O.J. Simpson hijacked the 1994 FIFA World Cup. North Korea propaganda claims the first gold of these winter olympics' (20180209 -

'Not much emotion, mass synchronization, huge national flags... Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong-nam must wonder which side of the DMZ they are tonight' (20180209 - )

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Sunday, January 14, 2018


Yesterday, the citizens of Hawaii and Seoul received alert messages on their mobile phones advising them to seek shelter - the former from a missile heading their way, the latter from massive air pollution about to hit them the next day. As it turns out, the missile alert in Hawaii was a human error*, and light precipitations have kept - so far - Seoul's Air Quality Index way below the expected Airpocalypse.

Still. In both cases, a bad taste keeps lingering in the air:
  • The Hawaiian scare caused a panic wave across America that certainly helps reality sink in for many people who were not taking North Korea seriously, but also fuels the rhetoric of hardliners willing to strike Pyongyang as soon as possible (see "This time it's different").
  • The air actually tasted sour this morning in Seoul. And to add insult to injury, the official AQI measures were much lower than the ones reported by other sources. May have something to do with the fact that many of said measures are taken from the top of the capital's lungs (its mountains)...
So let's return to the DPRK, and put aside these Pyeongchang 2018 talks, or Trump's confirmation that he could end up palling around with KJU as easily as he does with other dictators. KIM Jong-un is still itching for a final test with a charged ICBM, and Donald Trump is still itching for action. 

Even the POTUS' putative envoy for South Korea, Victor CHA, 'courageously' took position in favor of strikes... while remaining in D.C., which probably explains why the US Embassy to Korea is still expecting its new boss.

'Could you be more specific, @VictorDCha? What do you mean by 'limited strikes' on North Korea? To achieve which goals, beyond scratching Trump's itch, and causing the destruction of Seoul?' (20171224 -

On Christmas Eve, Victor CHA tweeted 'Limited Strikes on North Korea Are Past Due', an hawkish piece by a retired US Navy Captain, David Allan Adams, known for his poor judgement - he was against the 2009 surge in Afghanistan, and the nuclear submarine he had in charge had an embarrassing accident. The US Naval Institute published this 10 years after rewarding Adams in a essay contest for his already evocative 'Preemption without Regime Change'. As we'll see, Adam's rationale is scarily cynical, but it's even scarier to know that the would-be Ambo to Korea supports it. 

Adams' 'escalate to deescalate' 'strategy' could be summed up by 'let's gamble that shithole peninsula right now, once and for all': 
'the only way to absolutely discern the true nature of North Korea’s provocative decisions may be to gauge the regime’s response to limited military action' (...) 'if a limited military move against North Korea prompts an irrational shelling of Seoul and a wider war on the peninsula, then it is better to find out sooner than later. The only thing worse than a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula today is a war against an irrationally behaving, nuclear-armed North Korea capable of demolishing Honolulu, Tokyo, and Tumon tomorrow'.
It was probably a good thing to relieve this guy from the command of that nuclear submarine. Adams doesn't seem to realize that even today, even regardless of nukes, the effects of 'a wider war on the peninsula' would not be limited to Korea. Maybe he never heard of a country named China. Maybe he believes that Tokyo can't be hit today. Maybe he realized only yesterday that Honolulu was only 20 minutes away. An eternity seen from Seoul (toasted within a minute), but not much considering the 38 minutes it took to cancel the false alert (not to mention the time to reach Trump on his golf course**).

Trump to KJU: 'Drop your weapons! Now! Er... let me rephrase that...' (KAL cartoon in The Economist - 20170902 -
So hold your breath.

And welcome to Season XII of this excuse for a blog.

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* by 'human error', I don't refer to any specific head of state, but to staffers who issued by mistake an alarm ubi et orbi during an innocent drill.
** as usual, the POTUS tweeted today that the buck didn't stop anywhere near him.

20180117 addendum - Seoul's official AQI website*** is misleading:
- bad air looks bright yellow instead of the advertised orange
- measures are 15-30% below rival estimates
- 30-80 is green and 'standard' here, but elsewhere, 50-100 is generally yellow and 'bad'

(20180117 -
 *** launched in 2009 - see "Clean Air @ Seoul"

Monday, December 25, 2017

Care - Right Now!

A few days before that holiday celebrating a Jewish Palestinian son born to a refugee couple, this Seochon hanok resonated with touching stories of refugees and carpenters.

From Lesvos to Izmir to the Calais Jungle to a Seochon hanok - With Robert Mull and Hahm Donkyoon for Citizen Planet Right Now! School Of Politics - Duty of care, #socialresponsibility and the refugees crises
시민행성 당장!정치학교
(  -
For the launch of Citizen Planet's 'Right Now! School of Politics', Robert Mull was giving a lecture on 'Care - Architecture, Education, and Social Responsibility' that encompassed decades of involvement, from one Thatcher to another - from the Iron Lady era to Alpha Diagne, that Mauritanian refugee / artist who built and thatched with his own hands the Calais Jungle's iconic Blue House.

'We've dignified this bottom-up city with the care one would look at Florence or Seoul' (Robert Mull on Calais Jungle exhibitions at Barbican, SouthBank)

Robert Mull is a citizen of our planet, an educator, and a double agent in the field of architecture:
  • On the Dr Jekyll side, Robert has taught all over the globe, and headed prestigious institutions. He is currently Professor of Architecture and Design and Head of School at the University of Brighton, a Visiting Professor at the University of Umea, a partner in Beevor Mull Architects, and Director of Innovation at Publica.
  • On the Mr Hyde side, Robert is a relentless activist, and a thorn in the side of an architectural microcosm that too often indulges in navel gazing or disconnected extravaganzas. From his students, he expects bravery, passion with compassion, and an engagement in politics in the noble sense of the term. Even the initials of his Free Unit initiative (now a Global F.U.) send an irreverent message to a trade he often invites to humility (if not self-derision - in the Turncoats series, architects convene to expose their own vanities and impostures).
So here we were, citizens, architects, and citizen architects, cramming Citizen Planet's hanok in its Changseong-dong alleyway, just hectometers away from Korea's own Blue House.

For five years now, Citizen Planet has called social responsibility to mind. Its new Right Now! School of Politics doesn't have any political agenda, and isn't about ideology or idealism - it simply invites all citizens to embrace their responsibilities and to contribute to a better society. Right Now, because this is an urgent necessity. 

Yours truly, with HAHM Donkyoon (Head of Citizen Planet), and Robert MULL
Like caring for refugees.

Which may seem a distant priority for South Korea, a country posting embarrassing low recognition rates for refugees. Well, we do care for defectors trickling down from North Korea, but could we cope with another major flow? Today? At the very moment China builds massive refugee camps at its border? At a time when, for all we know, Seoulites themselves could be one tweet away from becoming refugees?

Yes, Seoul, the very city that makes refugees of its own citizens, barring them from returning to their childhood's neighborhood...

The official shipping container shelters stand in stark contrast to the self-built shelters of the camp.
The contrast between the anonymous containers erected by the French government, and the vibrant 'jungle' (photo Philippe Huguen - AFP/Getty Image) reminded me of familiar Seoul cityscapes ('apateu' v. 'daldongnae').

Refugee crises expose the best and the worst in all of us, providing Robert Mull with powerful examples of ethical approaches, how architects can fulfill what he calls their 'duty of care'.

We truly must care - starting with the words we use, and the way we look at each other, fellow citizens on our only planet.

'On the day Calais is demolished the media only mention migrants all reference to refugees has been dropped' (Calais Jungle map - Robert Mull on Twitter - 20161025)

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

We reject as false the choice between our welfare and our well being

Seoul city is about to sacrifice more of its ever shrinking 'green belt' areas.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. For instance, seven years ago, tens of millions of square meters of these protected lots were destroyed to build more homes, including some for low income families (see "Tighten your greenbelt").

But back then, 'New Town' models were still all the rage, Korea was not yet sitting on an oversupply of one million dwellings, and the population of Seoul was not shrinking.

Which, of course, is the case right now. And to add insult to injury, most of this will be done in the name of social housing. As if the only way to extend welfare was to destroy our environment. Worse: it contributes to real estate speculation across neighborhoods that were relatively spared until now.

Seoul just announced that 15,582㎡ of greenbelt land shall be dismantled around roads in Dobong-gu, Jungang-gu, Gangseo-gu, Gangnam-gu, and Seocho-gu.
Seoul and Korea to sacrifice 40 more of its greenbelt areas for social housing... while there's an oversupply of dwellings! Something is definitely rotten in Korea real estate - this shouldn't be about welfare vs well being and environment! (tweet to Mayor PARK Won-soon - 20171128 -
There is a shortage in social housing, but also an oversupply in housing. So instead of digging deeper into failed and costly urban models, wouldn't it be smarter to give incentives to landlords to increase the proportion of existing dwellings devoted to that purpose? Not in new ghettos, but across the city's neighborhoods?

It's also time to cure the country's addiction to building in new spots when so many neighborhoods and structures are falling apart. What happened to interesting initiatives to help struggling landlords do more or better? In "Seoul to tap into vacant homes pool", I already mentioned the potential of housing cooperatives, particularly for dense 'villa' neighborhoods, but it's hard to find a political will to shift away from old models*.

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* even if I'm not forgetting the promising 'human town' concept (see "OH Se-hoon launches the "Seoul Human Town" concept" or "Inhuman, all too human Seoul").

Friday, November 24, 2017

Ku Sang Awards 2017

As a tribute to the great poet and book lover who passed away in 2004, the Ku Sang Literature Awards celebrate confirmed poets (Kang Eun-kyo in 2015, Lee Il-hyang* this year) as well as very young or amateur talents, and emerging writers of Korean fiction. Yesterday, I had the pleasure to return to Yeongdeungpo Art Hall as a jury for the Ku Sang Young Writer Award.

In Korea, poetry remains the dominant form of literature not just by tradition, but also because fundamentally, the Korean language and its infinite nuances allow the most creative and powerful forms of expression with an economy of syllabs. On the other hand, people don't have much time to read fiction and long formats, particularly during their study years, the most formative ones for authors... but let's not digress, and venture into yet another rant about an education system known for destroying creativity in all its forms.

Speaking of form, or rather format... modern Korean fiction often comes in novellas, which can be a blessing: more room for character or story building than short stories, easier to test / taste new authors (e.g. no risk of endless ordeal in case you don't enjoy the journey!).

Asia Publishers provides series of small and colorful books that have a knack for jumping into your pack and holding you company wherever you go. They're all full of vitamins (bilingual editions augmented with short critics or comments), and sometimes you meet a true gem.

'The Summer' begins with a touching love story, which happen to be a story of lesbian love in smalltown Korea. Rewarding such a theme would send a very positive message from/to the country and its literature, but I voted for Choi Eunyoung's work because of its intrinsic qualities. As its protagonists move to Seoul, become adult, experience life's sometimes most frustrating twists, 'The Summer' grows into a tough, delicate, timeless and universal story of life, and a sincere, true literary feat. So congratulations to Choi Eunyoung - I'm looking forward to reading more from her.

Which will require, considering my embarrassingly miserable command of Korean, more work for translators, 'The Summer' being the first of her works to be available in English. If Han Kang and Deborah Smith shared the Man Booker International Prize, I'd like to thank Jamie Chang for sharing 'The Summer' with us. 

And while I'm at it, thank you, Brother Anthony of Taize, for sharing so many works of Ku Sang, and countless works of great Korean authors... not to mention, over last night's dinner (and in the great tradition of Korean literature), more stories and shots than I can recall.

CHOI Eunyoung receives the 2017 Ku Sang Young Writer Award (20171124 -
"The Summer" / "그 여름" by CHOI Eunyoung (Asia Publishers 2017)


I'll realize that I didn't post my reviews for the 2015 edition** on this blog. You'll find them right below (NB: my vote went to Geum Hee's 'Ok-hwa', the award to Cheon Myeong-kwan's 'Homecoming'):

"Ok-hwa" by Geum Hee (Asia Publishers 2015)

Each one of the four short stories nominated for the 2015 Ku Sang Young Writer Award proposes its own special and unique take at the elusive Korean dream, diversity, and identity. We follow the interactions of characters coming from different backgrounds, different countries, and sometimes different continents, who may share the same look, but seldom the same destiny… except maybe for that universal, all too human sense of loneliness and alienation.
"Ok-hwa" by Jin Jin-ji / Geum Hee
Ok-hwa is about “the anxiety of people who lived on the land of people not on their side”. Where is home? Is it this ethnic Korean village in China struggling with illegal “escapees” who do share the same look, but have that “particular North Korean scent”? Is home that fabled, far-away South Korea where Chinese Koreans and North Koreans alike feel mistreated? Deaconess Hong may be a rock in her community, her heart and convictions start melting as soon as she’s confronted with shifting mirrors and memories.
All characters in this story are somehow outcasts in the making, starting with ‘the woman’: everybody at the church is embarrassed by that unnamed escapee from North Korea begging around for money. Will she really leave for South Korea? Hong wants her out of her sight also because she reminds her too much of another escapee woman, and that one had a name: Ok-hwa. Ok-hwa was never cast out by the community, to the contrary: she was the one who rejected all others by suddenly vanishing, shattering the nucleus of Hong’s family, which welcomed her and married her to its precious son. Is the outcast Hong’s brother-in-law, who just returned from South Korea, where he felt like a sub-citizen? The main outcast could be Hong herself: she can’t escape anywhere, she can’t disappear in thin air, but is she truly there, and is there anybody “on her side”?

"Time Difference" by Baik Sou linne
In “Time Difference”, a married woman is tasked by her mother with meeting Jung-hun / Vincent, a cousin from the Netherlands whose existence is hidden from the rest of the family. Their secret encounters spice up her predictable life, and she is troubled by this man who is seven years older, but looks younger than her. Vincent is at the same time so similar and so different, like an inaccessibly free alien brother. She has a mission, a message for him, but she keeps procrastinating, and simply lives these lively moments. Yet she can’t fully enjoy them, because she already knows that she can lose a brother.

"Old Man River" by Lee Jang-wook
Old Man River” flows around Alex, a Korean adoptee who, since he lost his American father Nikola, is also orphan of both adoptive parents. Back from Iowa to his native country, with little chance of finding his biological mother through some tearjerker of a TV show, he feels like a total foreigner in a place where everybody looks like him. Alex did have once a girlfriend, but Lien had to leave Cedar Rapids for Vietnam with her father. Vietnam, USA, Korea, the same places emerge from the stories that his boss, a Korean bar owner in Itaewon, keeps telling again and again. But Alex has his own broken record: he’s obsessively mumbling the story of Heath Ledger’s tattoo, “Old Man River”. Is this lone soul going to drown completely?

"Homecoming" by Cheon Myeong-kwan
In “Homecoming”, the single father of a mixed boy struggles for survival in a dystopian future. They are ‘blankets’, homeless people at the bottom of a society of casts where only 10% have a job, and where the only safety net is a closefisted system of vouchers. At the top of the pyramid, the Gangnam superrich play with the lives of the Gangbuk superpoor, sometimes adopting their kids on a whim. Even by sacrificing himself, the father can’t afford feeding his son, or paying for his medical treatment. Will he accept the offer and abandon him, like his own father abandoned his family decades ago? What does ‘do the right thing’ mean in such a broken world?

Through the magic of fiction, Koreans from all horizons are confronted with four disturbing and sometimes distorting mirrors for the whole world to see. Now I’m confronted with a tricky choice: which room to recommend most in a house of mirrors that deserves a full tour?
My vote goes to "Ok-hwa" precisely because Jin Jin-ji’s story is, by itself, a whole house of mirrors. You know that you’ve stepped in a fiction, you are aware that with each character the author introduces new angles of reflection, new social and interpersonal constraints, you know that she’s also playing with time and voices to add confusion, and you know that you’ll end up as tangled as the main character.

Jin is not telling a story, but building an architectural trap where fiction forces the reader to see all sides of reality. And if all four stories somehow reach for a better mutual understanding within the ever more diverse Korean world, “Ok-hwa” may have the power to change the way many people look at each other as well as at themselves.

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* Giuseppe KIM sang beautifully one of her poems on stage, and both the guitarist and the poet ended in tears.
** I unfortunately couldn't attend last year's edition

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Year Of The Dog (free ebook)

Initially published in French 10 years ago ('L'Année du Chien' - 'Breves', 2007), 'Year Of The Dog' remains so far my only non-fiction Seoul 'dragedie', and the only one written from a foreigner's point of view. Yet it's not my first story featuring a dog - that would be 'Le regard d'un ami' (1979), where the narrator himself is canine. 

Which, as you'll see, doesn't make me humane.

I met this dog in Sanggye-dong, Nowo-gu, along Danghyeoncheon, long before Seoul upgraded it into a park. That streamlet also appears in my essay "Inhuman, all too human Seoul" (picture of an old timer who used to grow vegetables there).

Like for 'Guisin-dong', you can download this story for free. I hope you enjoy it, but welcome any comments (e.g. on dragedies website, on Amazon...).

Stephane - November 2017
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