Thursday, January 3, 2019

Seoul Village Season XIII

Welcome to the new year, the 13th of this excuse for a blog. 

And so long, 2018.

As usual, it all revolved around my 3 favorite verticals: culture, urbanism, and politics

But 2018 was NOT a usual year. And as we shifted from pre-war panic ("Alert!") to post-summit fatigue, we watched KIM Jong-un play MOON Jae-in and Donald TRUMP as easily as an elder statesman would with naive kids... Almost as pathetic as my fake interviews with KJU and DJT (see "Exclusive interview with KIM Jong-un - Season III" and "Trump: The Art of the Dealapidation (Exclusive Interview)")...

2018 was hot, dry, and utterly polluted. And the situation is even worse than advertised, since Seoul moved almost all its air quality monitors far above the recommended limit of 10 m. Coal wins again...

2018 was supposed to be remembered as the year of the Pyeongchang Olympics, but Korea scored too many own goals against its economy and society to celebrate. Just like my other home country, France, is more likely to remember 2018 for that tragic 'Gilets Jaunes' farce than for a second World Cup victory.

So. What does 2019 have in store for us*?
  • Another ride on North Korea's emotional roller coaster, of course; yet another make or break or collapse year.
  • An anniversary, too: 100 years after the March 1st Movement, Korea-Japan relations are bound to jump back up to the top of mind. Emperor Akihito abdicates only a few weeks later, and any subliminal message from him or / and his successor Naruhito will be closely monitored. Let's hope this great nation will not abdicate to its worst enemies from within, and will preserve the post-war, peaceful Constitution that Shinzo Abe and Nippon Kaigi have pledged to destroy.
  • We should also keep an eye on troop levels. They've already seriously melted South of the DMZ, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear more controversial statements from the White House about US presence in the region...
  • More changes in Seoul's ever shapeshifting cityscape. Some positive, please, we need them after recent, familiar, distressing news (more greenbelt areas sacrificed, more 'New Towns' planned...).
So I'll keep posting every now and then. Less often than I used to, particularly since I started spilling over Twitter (that's @THEseoulvillage, mind you), but as always with my independent, naturally subjective, and embarrassingly inept points of view.

Happy New Year to you, the ones you care for, and the ones no one care for.

Seoul Village 2019
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* beyond my yearly predictions, that is (see "Happy New Year 2020" and "Bonne année 2020")

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Huddled masses yearning to breathe free


Seoul is inviting pedestrians to enjoy a break from freezing winds under bus stops wrapped with plastic walls, a Winter equivalent to the wide parasols local authorities positioned at main crossroads last Summer.

Last Summer, multiplied wide parasols to protect pedestrians at crossroads. This winter, it dressed bus stations with plastic walls to give them shelter from bitter cold: (20181216 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/1074143256881946624)
Comment by @JeffreyNMeade (20181216): 'I saw parasols in Seocho-gu decorated like Christmas trees. Appreciated them I The summer, and nice that they are being used in the off-season.'
Nice touches, in a city prone to extreme weather (over 40 celsius last July, averages well under 10 below zero in February 2011).

Yes, the shade of a parasol may not be as refreshing as that of a tree, and plastic walls may not be the most eco-friendly material, but that's an improvement from shops leaving the air con on with their doors fully open, or heated benches at outdoor bus stops.

The question is: with what will Seoul come up to cope with bad air quality? For the commoners who dared come out without their 99.999 filter masks?

And even when we think we're protected, how about these nefarious nano-particles we keep carrying on our heads and clothes (when we forgot our space suits complete with helmets and oxygen tanks), before shedding / sharing them wherever we go next (very high concentration in subways)?

Decontamination tents, that's what I bet will come next at a subway entrance near you.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Checks and balances

Last week's Cheong Wa Dae reshuffle did little to restore MOON Jae-in's momentum.



A few months ago, the President was still enjoying record approval rates (over 80%!): people felt so relieved after bracing for an imminent military conflict, that everything else seemed trivial. Everybody knew that these peaceful summits with North Korea wouldn't lead to denuclearization, that the economy was on the wrong track, that the air we breathe was not tasting any better, but at least apocalypse had been postponed sine die*.

As time passed, survivor's euphoria dissipated, summit fatigue sunk in, and the malaise grew, with criticisms more and more centered around MOON Jae-in's very character, particularly following three disturbingly noxious axes: 
  • is he being too much played by KIM Jong-un
  • is he letting ideology too much undermine the economy? 
  • is he taking too much liberty with separation of powers?
Regarding North Korea, this President does go far beyond the good cop routine. Instead of maintaining a friendly pressure, he seems to be all out pushing KIM Jong-un's agenda: the JSA transformed into a welcome mat? a no fly zone over the DMZ? joint inspection of the Hangang? massive diplomatic efforts in favor of lifting sanctions?

If Pope Francis didn't say no to a visit to Pyongyang, Macron, May, and Merkel politely but firmly rejected an Iran deal scenario. At home, the opposition as well as members of MOON's own party were not happy to discover that massive parts of the infrastructure budget had not only remained unspent, but reallocated to a fund for future infrastructure in North Korea, without any notice to the Assembly.

A few days later, MOON Jae-in convened party leaders to ask them to get ready for a KIM Jong-un visit to South Korea... What does he expect? The Liberty Korea Party to send cheerleaders along Sejong-daero and throw petals at the dictator's motorcade?

Regarding the economy, after months of denial that anything was wrong, the President fired his controversial aide JANG Ha-sung, who kept praising the massive minimum wage hike that totally crippled the nation's dynamics at the worst moment, even after KIM Dong-yeon, the Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy, conceded that the unpopular measure could have played a role in higher unemployment and slower growth.

MOON fired KIM at the same time, replacing him with HONG Nam-ki. But to fill JANG's shoes, he picked another controversial figure, KIM Soo-hyun, announcing that the new KIM would have more power than HONG. KIM Soo-hyun later said that he would be a team player, and that HONG was in charge, but the damage was done. 

A former head of the Seoul Institute, KIM Soo-hyun is not an expert in economics, but specializes in urbanism and environment. His name is associated with disastrous policies that were supposed to curb real estate speculation, but fueled it instead; first under ROH Moo-hyun, then under MOON Jae-in (as senior presidential secretary for social affairs). Both JANG and KIM mean well, and both want to help the little guy, but both end up hurting the little guy even more because both tend to puts ideology first, to neglect impact studies, and to refuse to admit mistakes or to learn from them. 

Beyond failed castings and policies, MOON Jae-in is criticized for bypassing institutions. The Deputy PM in charge of Economy is not running the show, but coping with the consequences of JANG and KIM's decisions. And these advisors don't have to be confirmed by the Assembly. So far, MOON Jae-in has imposed seven Ministers that haven't been confirmed, and the last one (CHO Myung-rae - Environment) even failed the legislative vetting.

If people at the Ministry of Economy are not comfortable with owning the failures of a handful of Cheong Wa Dae advisors, what to say of lawmakers from MOON's ruling Democratic Party? For months, they have begged the President to change policies, if he doesn't want his camp to get shellacked at the 2020 elections.

The situation is truly distressing: small businesses are barely surviving, small jobs are suppressed in record numbers, youth unemployment is skyrocketing. For too many, MOON's 'income-led' policy has lead to zero income. And it's only days after growth forecasts have been slashed from 3.1 to 2.7% that we learn that most of the government's investments in infrastructure have been secretly sacrificed for North Korean dreams.

If we're by no means talking separation of power breaches or corruption scandals in the PARK Geun-hye-CHOI Soon-sil-WOO Byung-woo vein, there is a crisis at the executive level, and MOON Jae-in must bring more serious changes to dissipate growing doubts.

ADDENDUM - 20181113 UPDATE
After the minimum wage debacle, the NPS sinking.
Cheong Wa Dae ayatollahs just rejected 3 scenarii from finance ministry to save the National Pension, even adding that they didn't mind depleting the fund to give away more today.
They could and should have given more today, by not reallocating secretly huge parts of the infrastructure budget to future North Korea plans...

Seoul Village 2018
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* knock on wood - Trump may still need a diversion from various probes. The only 'red nose' we want for Christmas is Rudolf's.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Invasion of the gimchi snatchers

Two years after "Train to Busan", and a few months before the shooting of "Train to Busan 2" begins, "Rampant" ("창궐") is topping Korea's box office. All three Korean zombie movies, all three backed by Next Entertainment World, who's obviously milking this mad cow to the bone.


If traces of social satire could be found in 'Busan haeng' (by no means in the same proportions as in George A. Romero's 'Night of the living dead'), this period flick set in Joseon era seems purely devoted to action and martial art stunts, with the 'and zombies' suffix that sold 'Pride and prejudice and zombies' or 'Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies'.

Brace for the next variants. Why not a Juche zombie movie?

Wait... I already wrote the script for that one (see "Rise Of The Nork Zombies").

So maybe they'll try a Yangbanpire movie next...

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Monday, September 24, 2018

Land mining Seoul

Seoul is once again* about to lose more of its ever shrinking greenbelt area. The main difference with last time? Mayor PARK Won-soon is opposing the move, because it might hurt his presidential ambitions: even if acted now, the move wouldn't translate into new dwellings before 6 to 7 years, and trees would be torn down too close to the 2022 elections.

'Shame on 's Ministry of Land and Territory, which is considering reducing even more 's protected greenbelt areas to provide more . When there's already oversupply, and fewer people living in the capital!' (20180921 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/1042933809820446720)

'This time, mayor is opposing the move, which may backfire for his presidential bid' (20180921 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/1042948381071630338)
Seoul does want to add 62,000 dwellings, by using idle land and relaxing FAR rules. The Ministry of Land, Transport, and Maritime Affairs targets 50,000, but to achieve that goal, intends to tear down greenbelt areas (300,000 sqm).

This good-cop-bad-cop routine between the government and PARK Won-soon doesn't fool anyone. Particularly the week MOON Jae-in all but knighted him as first in line of succession by inviting him (along with his Gangwon-do rival) to Pyongyang for his third summit with KIM Jong-un, pretexting their first-in-line-when-the-gimchi-hits-the-fan-ness (nevermind Gyeonggi-do).

Anyway, MOON's government doesn't have much to lose in taking the blame for destroying Seoul's last lungs: they're not running in 2022, and they are already under fire for their miserable handling of real estate bubbles: everything they try is fueling them now, in anticipation of their downfall. The intentions are good, but like Paris with environment, they leave it up to an ideological ayatollah with little understanding of environmental and economical collateral damage.

Anyway, speculation keeps ruining Seoul. To the point that in some instances, pools of homeowners bully, boycott, and force into bankruptcy realtors who dare post prices too low for their taste.

One thing is sure: there is already an oversupply of dwellings, and Seoul's population has shrunk under PARK Won-soon's watch. Gaping inequalities remain, and heavy regulation is required, but adding further artificial and counterproductive distortions won't help. New social housing projects should propose prices that are fair and affordable, not cowardly indexed at bubble-level-minus-20%.

An opening of North Korea would definitely change the equation. Co-organizing Olympics with North Korea in 2032? Not so much. And where would they be held, without abandoning the one-city rule? Seoul-Pyongyang? Kaesong? Panmunjom?

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* see "We reject as false the choice between our welfare and our well being", "Tighten your greenbelt"... 
** "풀어도 문제, 놔둬도 고민"…서울 그린벨트 '딜레마' (Chosun Ilbo 20180919)

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

'The Accusation' by Bandi

The Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch recently moved its Reading Club meetings from the Jongno District Office's library in Susong-dong to gentrified Waryong-dong, and the quiet basement of North Terrace Building, a fancy book cafe with a stimulating editorial line, consistent with the club's focus on Korean literature in translation*.

On the menu yesterday: Bandi's 'The Accusation'...


'The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea' by Bandi
... as translated by Deborah Smith, so footnote-free, and easy to read for Westerners who don't know much about Korea, let alone North Korea

Don't get me wrong: this easy-read is a must-read! Furthermore, I applaud the choice to spread Bandi's words as far as possible to help more people understand what living under the most oppressive and corrupt regime on Earth means.

I simply wish (and I'm not alone) the opportunity had been seized to make a few key concepts more widely known. For instance, why keep 'Bowibu' (State Security), but not use 'songbun' (DPRK's 'cast' system), which plays a much more important role all across the book? If it helps, picture the cover of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 'Forced Labor Camp Archipelago'... anyway, it doesn't matter much, and certainly doesn't change the realities described in this brilliant fiction.

Written between 1989 and 1995, the manuscript could only be smuggled out of North Korea in 2013. And Bandi may never escape the land where you're not allowed to think out loud. The author's daily job, as an official writer, is to hammer the regime's doctrine and myths home through edifying fiction, but as an anonymous 'firefly' (the 'Bandi' pseudonym), she/he finds the courage to set her/himself free, and to expose its impostures by pulling the same tricks against it, delivering powerful insights far beyond the usual 'rare glimpses' into Pyongyang.

Actually, oppression can be felt even more acutely in small town Kimilsungistan, even on that remote field, high up in the mountain. The heroes? Simple people struggling to survive as decent family members and citizens in a dystopian system. The villains? The very ones supposed to lead as role models. Each one of Bandi's seven short stories respects the official moral fable topics and structures, but instead of teaching why the system is the answer, the climactic moment of revelation exposes why it is the mother of all problems.

While reading, I thought a lot about Song Byeok, that propaganda painter turned satirist artist after defecting to the South:

Song Byeok's 'Marilyn Monroe' has the face of movie fanatic Kim Jong-il
Except, of course, that Bandi's literature uses a far more subtle and diverse palette. Even through the biases of edition, translation, and that very special para-propaganda genre, I believe Bandi to be not only one unique person**, but also a true humanist, and a great author.

The editors cleverly dropped the manuscript's chronological order, starting 'The Accusation' with stories showing how trust can be a challenge even within the most intimate familial circle, and ending with 'The Red Mushroom', a masterpiece linking modern times to the grand Korean tales tradition, a farce and a tragedy, complete with a Kafkaian trial***, the Saint figure of a hero, and a narrator I suspect to be among the most autobiographical in the whole book: a disillusioned official scribbler compelled to serve the regime because he needs to survive, but also a compassionate soul marveling at how great humans can remain or become, even in this Pandemonium.

Frankly, I don't care if Bandi is 'Mr Bullshit Reporter' or 'Mrs Bullshit Writer'. I care that Bandi cares.

And so should we.


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* yet reaching far beyond - among my favorites:

'Sipping Waryong-dong coffee in a book lover's lair. Among the odd volumes, this 'Pictorial Chosen and Manchuria' (Bank of Chosen 1919) (20180627 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/1011933015843336193)

** some think there are various contributors, I presume because of the way Bandi convincingly carries male as well as female voices, or ventures into farce as easily as into tear-jerkers, but the risks would have been even more extreme, and the author's own 'voice' / vision remains consistent. 
*** not just K's. Because of KO Inshik's figure, that trial also brought memories of the one in Iain Pears' 'An Instance of the Fingerpost', which Bandi probably never had a chance to read.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Chaebolplex v. Indie Movies - The Sequel

According to KOFIC / KOBIZ, Korea's 2,870 movie screens recorded almost 220 M admissions last year, a 49% increase in ten years. That's enough to take over (30% more populated) France, where admissions gained only 11% over the same period, from 190 to 209 M. Korean and Foreign films have basically maintained their positions on the market: around 50/50 for the number of admissions, 28/72 for the number of films released, knowing that the biggest blockbusters tend to be local (only Avatar appears in the all time top ten, as #3).

The number of movies released exploded (from 380 to 1,765), which is not a guarantee for quality, but an encouraging sign for culture diversity*. Indeed, the big 'chaebolplexes' that control the market have at long last started to propose independent movies.

Which doesn't mean that Korea's indie movie ecosystem is better off.

When six years ago, chaebolplexes were forced to feature them following the 'Pieta' scandal, I worried that they would struggle to kick their bad, closed circuit habits (see "Saving Korean cinema... and even Chaebolplex"), and that's pretty much what happened.

Just a few significant events that followed the 2012 'Pieta Law':
- 2013: ten indie movie producers pool their efforts to create Little Big Pictures
- 2014: CJ Group launches CGV Arthouse (chaebolplexes create their own 'indie' theaters)
- 2015: it gets political when AHN Cheol-soo brings the spotlight on the cause, and indies push for laws similar to the 1948 Paramount Decree (the "antitrust case that ruled against big movie studios operating their own movie theaters"**)
- 2016: Netflix launches in Korea
- 2017: produced by Netflix, BONG Joon-ho's 'Okja' is boycotted by Korea's biggest theater operators
- 2018: IPTV takes over cable TV as main provider, controlled by the Big 3 (KT, SKT, LGU+), and 'chaebolplex' snatch exclusivities for indie movies away from 'independent art houses', even for re-runs.***

How can indie theaters survive, or compete with lavish complexes that in terms of diversity, contribute essentially to one of chaebolplex's core business models: real estate. There are so much new complexes Seoul can host, and the 'art house' alibi provides a perfect 'alternative' offer to developments that target culture-friendly elites.



Institutions like Seoul Cinema or Indie Space embody the resistance, but for how long?


'Smells like Seoul Cinema spirit' (20180517 - www.instagram.com/p/Bi4AYl9ll7H/?taken-by=stephanemot)


'not sure the one in the middle will be featured in a chaebolplex' (20121213 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/279079561419960320)


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* on this issue, read " Heralding cultural diversity - a stronger and more sustainable Korean wave" (2013)
** "South Korea’s Chaebol-sized Movie Problem"  (WSJ 20150130)
*** "Art house cinemas lose their exclusivity : As more indie films are screened at theater chains, smaller venues suffer losses" (KJD 20180706)

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