Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Gwanghwamun Square Enters Third Dimension

Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Cultural Heritage Administration unveiled yesterday their plans for a 'New Gwanghwamun Square' by 2021, and they came up with a weird 'solution' for the potential traffic conundrum I mentioned four years ago, when the project started taking a clearer shape (see "Gwanghwamun, Donhwamun, and the Tale of two Royal Roads").

Gwanghwamun Square 3.0 - the royal Sejongno-Gwanghwamun-Gyeongbokgung-Cheong Wa Dae-Bugaksan-Bukhansan perspective

This modification of Seoul's most defining center has potentially even greater consequences than the previous one, which we followed step by step a decade ago. I will as usual focus on the urbanistic impacts (passing by many familiar spots), but since this is also about Korea's center of power ever since its capital was founded, I'd better start with some political context.

It's the politics, stupid?

Such a project deserves to be carried by both the local (SMG) and national (CHA) governments, and PARK Won-soon as well as MOON Jae-in happen to have a special bond with a site where PARK Geun-hye started and ended her presidency.

Started? If we all remember the massive, peaceful demonstrations that led to PGH's destitution, who could possibly forget that kitschissime wishtree** on Gwanghwamun Square, her first symbolic stop on her way to Cheong Wa Dae?

During his own campaign, MOON Jae-in pledged to move the presidential offices from Cheong Wa Dae to Sejongno, and the presidential residence closer to Gwanghwamun, in order to cleanse the feet of Bugaksan, and to honor the place where democracy took a stand and won. MOON also picked Gwanghwamun Square to celebrate his victory.

Retrospectively, I shudder when I remember AHN Hee-jung's over-the-top cheering that night - back then, I didn't know he couldn't even control his darkest pulsions... anyway, his DSK / #metoo moment completely revived the ambitions of a man who tried to steal the show on the very same night.

Only weeks ago, PARK Won-soon was clearly out of the game for the 2022 presidential elections, and about to be dumped by his own party for the upcoming mayoral elections (June 2018). Now he's leading the polls by far (against WOO Sang-ho and PARK Young-sun for the primaries, and against AHN Cheol-soo and KIM Moon-soo beyond), and this new project looks like the ideal platform for both ballots: he can make a splash in 2018 on the very site that boosted his predecessor's reelection***, and deliver the goods just months before 2022. Of course, PWS already combined a major urban project with a major political event before, but PGH's impeachment derailed Seoullo 7017's perfect timing ahead of the 2017 elections (see "Seoullo 7017, and more roads to Seoul").

Now is the right moment to communicate a grand scheme and vision, big enough to mask PARK's most recent shortcomings: he barely managed to avoid criticism for Seoul's waste management crisis by sending deputies to face the media, and he let his rival WOO preempt the usually well coveted 'public transportation' territory by campaigning on a new metropolitan authority, including yet another revival of the key Seobuseon project (after 2013, when "Seobu Line confirmed as Seoul's LRT top priority", the city dropped the ball once again).

So yes, it's about politics. But regardless of this context, Gwanghwamun Square and its surroundings needed a fix.

3.7 times bigger, 3.7 times better?

So what's the plan? Basically, the pedestrian zone grows not only, as expected, to the West and along nearby streets, but also right in front of the gate, making the road map much more complex, what I dubbed Seoul's 'Royal T'**** turning into a Y:

Seoul also revived its old ambition to restore Baekundongcheon, Cheonggyecheon's main source, the diagonal still visible on today's map (see "Baekundongcheon / Gwanghwamun-gil - A River Runs Through It"*****).

Seoul city advertises about the 3.7 factor by which pedestrian surface booms from 18,840 m2 to 69,300 m2, the reduction of traffic lanes to 6 along Sejong-daero, and its renewed demands to the State for a GTX extension to Gwanghwamun.

All this sounds very positive and environment friendly, but no really new green spaces are planned, and the extended square might make Summers and Winters even more merciless in what looks more like Tiananmen Square, or the barren landing site that preceded Yeouido Park.

There are still no dedicated lanes for buses or bicycles, and buses shall be redirected South, which seems recipe for disaster for public transportation around downtown Seoul, particularly since the new road map deprives Sajik-ro 8-gil (formerly Naejadong-gil) from its role of main NS/EW dispatcher.

Compared to Gwanghwamun 2.0, the 2009 revolution that brought pedestrians back to the heart of the capital, this Gwanghwamun 3.0 adds only marginal change to their experience. I like the idea of restoring the 'parvis' in front of Gwanghwamun, the Eastern pavillions and hanok around a 'History Square' that could liven up the walk from Seochon to Bukchon... but pushing traffic further downtown, and adding new bottlenecks to already saturated axes does seem like a big price to pay. 

Unfortunately, like with Seoullo, impact surveys have obviously been eluded in a race to meet electoral deadlines, and authorities chose to worsen traffic situations by not tackling them. Even the curve of the new road following the back of the central government building (that by the way shouldn't be on that History Square) tells about quick and dirty fixes without consideration for the big picture.

What Seoul needed was a consistent vision and plan to prepare its whole historic center Sadeamun (intra muros) for a driverless future. What Seoul delivered was a dangerously incomplete, short-sighted, ill-prepared PR stunt.

The city will take one year to select a proposal, start work in January 2020, and finish by EOY 2021. Mayor PARK missed by a few months last time, and 2021 seems safe enough a goal for him to inauguration the new (if not improved) Gwanghwamun Square. 

I sincerely hope he'll reconsider this plan, and grow some ambition for our city.

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* see "The Anipang Election: Park wins big, but who won?"
** see "Park 2 Day 1 in pictures"
*** will OH Se-hoon rise again (on billboards, at least - see "OH Se-hoon returns... but did he ever leave?")
**** see "Inwangsan's Great Wall and Seoul's Royal "T" Time"
***** note that since my 2009 focus, the streets West of Sejong-daero have been renamed Saemunan-ro 9-gil and Saemunan-ro 5ga-gil. Seoul also renewed the project of highlighting walls around Sajik-dan and Sajik-park.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Seoul cartoneros

I jumped from my seat as soon as I noticed the skinny 80-year-old man falling down, but arrived a couple of seconds too late. Luckily, two gentlemen had already caught both him and his bike before they hit the macadam. Yet the four of us couldn't prevent the slomo collapse of his load ; about two cubic meters of cardboard miraculously held by a single rope, the fruit of a morning's hard work for that ancient Seoul cartonero.

The halabeoji insisted to rearrange his pile alone, and left with only a slightly bruised pride. The rest of us? Crushed by the collective shame of a society that lets its senior citizens risk their lives* to earn a dime.

These people are not even homeless, unlike that much younger can collector who used to sleep behind Seoul Station, years before they tore its walkway down, and converted its elevated road into Seoullo 7017 (again, please do watch Nils Clauss' haunting 'Sigur Ros / Varud' video - see "Happy Seoul").

If Korea's welfare system should theoretically prevent this kind of aberrations, old cartoneros remain a common sight across the city, part of the folklore. We know they proudly refuse our help, but we also know they like us to discard our pieces of cardboard a day before garbage collection, to secure their share.

'Lady cartonero at the Seosomun crossing, Seoul' (20161208 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/806793131580497920)
We're not saving their jobs, we're institutionalizing a wrongful role for them in our ecosystem. And instead of solving problems, we create new ones by maintaining an unsustainable recycling model.

Consider this: these days, street collectors have a tougher time selling their harvest because China stopped buying recycled material from Seoul. And Korea is considering stopping selective waste collection altogether because it can't process all of it itself. What was the point of investing so well in recycling pedagogy without going all the way?

But no, it made more sense having our eldest citizens risk their lives picking up our trash, and pushing it to the nearest eyesore of a collection hub; it made more sense having this pervasive, absurd logistics network feed whole ships of recycled stuff for China.

Recycling should be about reducing our carbon footprint. And sparing our grandparents' feet.

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* I seriously wonder how many casualties actually stem from this nonsense. A couple of years ago, I helped a very old cartonera push a ridiculously massive cart up a hill... it could have crushed her otherwise, but thanks to me, it might have actually crushed someone else further afield, on the downhill side.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Exclusive interview with KIM Jong-un - Season III

For the third time*, we've been granted an exclusive interview with KIM Jong-un. If you remember well, the first one followed the medieval execution of Unc' Jang, and the second the putinesque elimination of Bro Jong-nam. This time, I only witnessed North Korea's leader gruesomely murder ten bottles of XI Jinping's Maotai baiju, while we choo-chooed back to Pyongyang in his private train.

Seoul Village: "Hey, that's expensive booze. Don't you want to make them last a bit longer? Or did you get guarantees from XI for a free refill?"

KIM Jong-un: "Don't worry, that's part of the agreement we reached in Beijing: every fortnight, somewhere in the South China Sea, an Eritrean supertanker sailing under Panama flag will transfer its whole shipment to a North Korean fishing boat."

SV: "Wait. You're talking supertanker on one side, and fishing boat on the other... How will that ever fit?"

KJU: "We'll use Russian pipes for the transfer - robust stuff, Made in Rason; I collect 99%, Jinping's family 49%, Vladimir 34%, and the rest naturally trickles down through the usual DPRK black market channels. Of course, Paul Manafort gets his cut, and everybody's happy."

SV: "Sounds legit. You mentioned an agreement with China..."

KJU: "Xi."

SV: "Well that's pretty much the same now. So what's the deal?"

KJU: "Obviously, I had to pledge some sort of allegiance. The trick was to not overdo boot-licking, and to avoid as much ass-kissing as possible - believe me, considering Xi's considerable tummy, that required expert level in circumnavigation."

SV: "I see. I also see that you're circumnavigating my question as well."

KJU: "Don't test me. Remember that when I test something, even mountains can collapse... Well Xi treated me like a kid, but I got a few candies in return - our restaurants in China can operate again, for example. And if the US ever try to strike North Korea, China will step in. So when (if) I meet The Donald in May, sanctions won't bite as much as they do now, and there will be a third 800-pound gorilla in the room. When you think that just weeks ago I was totally cornered, and about to get bombed** right after Pyeongchang... now I'm safe until at least May, and under the protection of The Godfather himself..." 

Ri Sol-ju (in beige), Kim Jong-un (in Mao neck jacket), XI Jinping (in red tie-carpet-vases), Peng Liyuan (in cowhide)

SV: "I presume Xi was not happy to learn that you could meet Trump before himself."

KJU: "Now that one got me flummoxed in the first place. I never imagined that Don would accept that quickly. But then again, our meeting may never happen."

SV: "But you did confirm Xi you were committed to denuclearization, right?"

KJU: "Yup, with the usual caveat: I've always been willing to denuclearize once all the conditions are there: first the US-ROK drills stop, then the US withdraw completely from the peninsula and from Japan (I'll throw the Philippines and Guam in for good measure), then Korea reunites under my rule, and only then I give up all my nukes."

SV: "For good?"

KJU: "Sure, forever. Just like the States and Russia when they pledged to do so."

SV: "So if I get it right, you keep your job, your regime, your nukes. But you return under Beijing's wing, and you have to resist the urge to test new toys for a while."

KJU: "Bah. Anyway, testing nukes in Punggye-ri or what's left of it was getting each time trickier. Xi suggested me to ask some of my customers to test my products for me in their own most deserted wastelands."

SV: "I get the picture. And I bet Bashar has paved the way for many new potential sites. With this new diplomatic frenzy of yours, we may all start from a blank slate."

KJU: "Peace, at last."

SV: "I almost forgot. You'll meet MOON Jae-in pretty soon..."

KJU: "Who?"

SV: "MOON, the South Korean president." 

KJU: "Ah, that guy. Well I have to, haven't I? After all he's done to get me out of this mess. I guess I'll have to find him a job for after the Unification. Not the management of Moranbong, anyway - I already promised that one to the dude who was supposed to succeed him."

SV: "AHN Hee-jung? He's heading for jail, now - Mr Nice Guy turned out to be Weinstein on steroids."

KJU: "Precisely the kind of people I can trust. I also have a job in mind for John Bolton when this is all over."

SV: "Uh... Bolton's American. And not exactly a fan of yours."

KJU: "He's my next Chief of Staff. I need to recruit radical warmongers just like him. Also, people who thrive in corrupt environments, experienced ones like PARK Geun-hye or LEE Myung-bak. Zuck is already helping me source new talents."

SV: "Mark Zuckerberg?!?"

KJU: "Our JV, Kimchi Analytica, has been screening social networks for years. How do you think we selected you for our interviews? And as an expert in Weapons of Mass Disinformation, would you like to head our KCNA?"

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* see "EXCLUSIVE-Second interview with KIM Jong-un", "Exclusive interview with KIM Jong-un" - Agence Fausse Presse.
** see "Alert!"

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 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/965479212130893827)

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 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/961936005312868352)

'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 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/962156364960116738)
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 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/961971242621374465)
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 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/961833877562998784)
'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 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/961839042487730176)

'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 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/944844826373079042)

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 - kaltoons.com)
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 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/953407244728614913)
 *** 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
(  - instagram.com/p/Bc5pX-pFjuA/)
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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