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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Seoul Village Season XV

At long last we managed to escape from 2020.


We're certainly not out of the woods yet: the beast is still striking all over the world, our economies have yet to fully experience 'long covid', and vaccination will take much longer than it should (particularly in Korea, where hubris led to an embarrassing failure to secure doses before the second half of 2021).

Beyond this mother of all crises, here's what I liked and didn't like in 2020, what to expect from 2021.

 

A positive cultural leader, a pro yet fun soft power... the new Korean cool!

Korean culture claimed mainstream recognition in 2020. Of course "Gisaengchung - BONG Joon-ho's existenchial Parasite" scored a perfect grand slam, of course BTS dynamited the charts, but Korean series surfed the wave far beyond the usual Korean dramas, and Foreign media started paying more attention to different beats, from indie music to trot to pansori. I just loved to see Leenalchi succeed at home as well as overseas; that's the Korea I love, and these guys brought priceless freshness and fun when they were most needed.


Respect is what this world needs to better heal, and Korean citizens showed the world how caring for each other and respecting the common good was the way to overcome together. Even Korean American Rep. Andy Kim contributed to this positive image when he humbly cleaned up the US Capitol rotunda after the riots. That's the spirit.

Korea acted as a cultural leader also by innovating in the management and the treatment of the pandemic. The country realized unprecedented breakthroughs in research and development, not just, as usual, at the product level, but at the platform level as well, including in medical fields. 

This is not just about a K-pop fad anymore. Korea proved it could be at the same time super-pro, and super-cool... just like SON Heung-min!

 

The Dark Side of the Moon


2020 should have marked MOON Jae-in's triumph, with the ruling party's landslide victory at the elections, surfing on a brilliant success against the first wave of coronavirus... but his handling of three key issues durably tarnished his legacy.  Actually the very same issues I spotted two years ago (see "Moon Landing - The Cheong Wa Dae Curse"):

- Economy: dogmatism over pragmatism, that's certainly not the way to think in this millennium, particularly when small businesses struggle to survive. This pandemic only constituted a second wave after reforms that already claimed a lot of victims among the weakest ones. And what to say of the real estate mess? The ayatollah in charge of the reforms even wrote a book explaining that the aim of the game was precisely to hurt the little guys, because studies show that when the middle class benefits from the market, they tend to vote more conservative... Simply put, this government deliberately betrayed the very ones he pledged to defend.

- North Korea: now the government doesn't even try to pretend anymore. Protecting the KIM Jong-un regime matters more than defending human rights, defectors who criticize him have become the enemy, and KIM Yo-jong all but dictates the laws (see "KIM Yo-jong Crash Landing On You"). Human Rights Watch and other international bodies have denounced this moral failure, but that's not even the worst that has happened last year.

- Justice: if MOON Jae-in's approval rates are nosediving, that's because his administration has betrayed the spirit of 2016, the democratic values they were supposed to herald, and yes, even the memory of ROH Moo-hyun. Now international media are starting to look at MOON through less rose-colored glasses, and even some hardcore stans find that they went too far. Because when it comes to undermining justice and separation of powers, this administration has out-trumped Donald TRUMPCHO Kuk and CHOO Mi-ae have out-williambarred William BARR, and the ruling party has out-GOPed the Republicans. The only person who stands on their path is the incorruptible Eliot NESS MOON Jae-in himself named to lead the prosecution reform. YOON Seok-youl refused to turn a blind eye on the corruption within Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party, and decided to defend democracy and the Constitution instead of his party. By harassing him and his teams in the most outrageous ways even by trumpian standards, these thugs managed to turn a selfless liberal into a hero even for conservatives. YOON is now leading in the polls for the 2022 presidential election, but like Robert MUELLER, he's more interested in defending the integrity of justice and the soul of the nation than in a political career. 


What does 2021 have in store?


The race for 2022 starts this year, with key mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan. The ruling party should easily keep the control of the capital city, but its leaders lost a lot of credit at the national level (see above) as well as at the local level (between the lack of transparency in the controversial Sejong-daero project and the scandals surrounding PARK Won-soon suicide - see "Mayor Park to ground control"). 

After the moral collapse of the right and left wings, Korea seems ripe for a centrist, uniting figure, but no one emerges there. Because the ruling party betrayed its own values, there's an opportunity at the center right, and OH Se-hoon hasn't given up his grand national ambitions. He proposed AHN Cheol-soo to join the People Power Party and run for Seoul mayor in 2021, which would clear the way for OH in 2022, and for AHN in 2027. To the left, the future could belong to people like GEUM Tae-seop, a moderate who left the ruling party because he felt it lost its moral compass. Yet at this stage, no one is as popular as YOON. 

We will see which welcome pack KIM Jong-un prepared for Joe BIDEN, how long Yoshihide SUGA survives on top (anyway, whoever succeeds him, without or "With Yoshihide Suga, Nippon Kaigi remains in charge of Japan politics"), what kind of pressure China intends to exert on South Korea... 

We will of course keep an eye on the evolution of Seoul's cityscape, the 3rd Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, the impact of Sejong-daero revamping. 

And I might have a surprise or two in the fiction department. Thank you again, dear readers, for downloading my collection of short stories, 'Seoul VillageS', from all over the world. Your kind feedback brightened this dark year.

I wish us all a better year 2021, full of health and love. And if this year of the cow brings us another roaring tiger, let's not lose hope and let's not forget the power of laughter.



Seoul Village 2021
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PS - ICYMI, the manual to 2020:

Parasite:


Monday, November 23, 2020

Korean Errlines

The Korean Air - Asiana Airlines merger would face severe antitrust backlash anywhere, but Korea doesn't seem ready to welcome a foreign full-service carrier, and this is 2020. Yes, the new giant will lose many international routes, since Asiana competed with KAL on almost half of its overseas destinations, but it will also become a big player among Asia's low cost carriers after combining Jin Air, Air Seoul, and Air Busan (probably under the Asiana Airlines brand). Skyteam scores a major win against Star Alliance, and even slightly diluted as a KAL shareholder, Delta Airlines reinforces a key position in the region.


Needless to say, the pandemic spiced up this Korean drama where both Asiana suitors flew away: 

  • the preferred consortium (Hyundai Development Company - Mirae Asset - Daewoo) looked for every possible loophole to take off between the engagement and the wedding, 
  • Aekyung landed on a much smaller prey, beefing up its Jeju Air with Eastar Jet
  • in the end, Kumho Asiana will have to lead their daughter to their main rival

The Hanjin KAL holding company will be able to advance the funds thanks to KDB, who will get a bit more than 10% of the merged carrier. So indirectly, the government foots the bill. In spite of the chaebol family scandals (from the nutrage to its many sequels), the Cho must go on...

Earlier this year, Korean Air fared much better than its global rivals, mainly thanks to freight traffic. And these days, the most popular domestic route in the World happens to be between Seoul and Jeju, the nation's preferred holiday destination benefiting from the lack of overseas alternatives. 


(source "These Are the World’s Busiest Airline Routes During Covid Times" - Bloomberg 20201117)

After inventing flights to nowhere (take off and landing in the same airport), Korea opened its skies to international fly-over travels. So there's always a quick fix if you miss international travels. Even for those who miss Jin Air's inflight meals (this is 2020, you are entitled to miss anything), there's a solution - low cost, of course:

'Travel withdrawal syndrome? Jin Air proposes inflight meals at home (today's KJD). For this plastic frenzy to make perfect sense, they should add a hundred gallons of kerozene to burn in your living room' (@theseoulvillage - 20201024)

But for cheap and easy escapes, nothing beats a travel book:

'Lonely Planet' indeed (they forgot 'Glamping on the balcony') (@theseoulvillage - 20201023)


Hep, taxi!


Seoul Village 2020
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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

With Yoshihide Suga, Nippon Kaigi remains in charge of Japan politics

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Shinzo ABE is replaced by a man six years older, and even more conservative. The cabinet remains basically unchanged, with Taro ASO as number two, and as expected, a majority (14/20) of members affiliated with the neo-fascist lobby Nippon Kaigi, including of course #1 and #2, but also 7 of the 10 new members:

  • Nobuo Kishi (Defense), like his brother Shinzo Abe a war crime denier, and a grandson of untried war criminal and former PM Nobusuke Kishi. Sadly, in today's Japan, Nippon Kaigi has a monopoly on the Ministry of Defense, because the lobby is all about restoring Imperial Japan militarism and destroying postwar pacifism, starting with the Constitution (particularly Article 9). Former Defense Minister Taro Kono is now in charge of administrative and regulatory reforms, which probably cover the revision of the constitution that Shinzo Abe failed to deliver)
  • Ryota Takeda (Minister of General Affairs)
  • Kotaro Nogami (Agriculture and Fisheries)
  • Norihisa Tamura (Health, Labor and Welfare)
  • Katsuei Hirasawa (Minister of Reconstruction)
  • Shinji Inoue (Consumer Administration, Osaka 2025)
  • Tetsushi Sakamoto (Regional revitalisation etc)

 Yoshihide Suga's cabinet (2 women*):


. Yoshihide Suga (71) Prime Minister
. Taro Aso (79) Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister (idem)
. Ryota Takeda (52) Internal Affairs and Communications Minister
. Yoko Kamikawa* (67) Justice Minister
. Toshimitsu Motegi (64) Foreign Minister (idem)
. Koichi Hagiuda (57) Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister (idem)
. Norihisa Tamura (55) Health, Labor and Welfare Minister
. Kotaro Nogami (53) Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister
. Hiroshi Kajiyama (64) Economy, Trade and Industry Minister (idem)
. Kazuyoshi Akaba (62) Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister (idem)
. Shinjiro Koizumi (39) Environment Minister (idem)
. Nobuo Kishi (61) Defense Minister
. Katsunobu Kato (64) Chief Cabinet Secretary, Minister in charge of the abduction issue
. Katsuei Hirasawa (75) Reconstruction Minister
. Hachiro Okonogi (55) Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, Minister in charge of disaster management
. Tetsushi Sakamoto (69) Minister for promoting dynamic engagement of all citizens, Minister in charge of regional revitalization, Minister in charge of measures for declining birthrate
. Yasutoshi Nishimura (57) Minister in charge of economic revitalization, Minister in charge of measures for the novel coronavirus pandemic (idem)
. Taro Kono (57) Minister in charge of administrative reform, Minister in charge of regulatory reform
. Seiko Hashimoto* (55) Minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, Minister in charge of women's empowerment, Minister in charge of gender equality (idem)
. Shinji Inoue (50) Minister for the 2025 World Exposition in Osaka, Minister in charge of consumer administration
. Takuya Hirai (62) Minister in charge of digital reform, Minister in charge of social security and tax number system

Health minister Katsunobu Kato was chosen to succeed Suga as chief Cabinet secretary
Health minister Katsunobu Kato was chosen to succeed Suga as chief Cabinet secretary
Health minister Katsunobu Kato was chosen to succeed Suga as chief Cabinet secretary
Health minister Katsunobu Kato was chosen to succeed Suga as chief Cabinet secretary

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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Wonju's Academy Theater

While Korea keeps mass producing movie theater 'chaebolplexes'*, old landmarks keep disappearing one by one. The very last hidden gem lies in Wonju's center, one block away from the Minsok Pungmul Market. Built in 1963, Academy Theater closed its doors in 2006, but over the past few years, citizens have been involved in its revival as a cultural experience many cities would die to propose.

Forget home cinema: this is the home of cinema, complete with the owner's quarters above the theater. And this is not your usual, overly sanitized and storytold, clinically urban-regenerationed space, but a genuine time capsule that preserved, beyond its walls, a unique atmosphere, details that make all the difference; whole rows of seats from the origins, an actual silver screen, ancient projectors and accessories, vantage points for the police to monitor the audience, even a pool overlooked by a wall featuring in 3D Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia (as close to the originals as that cult statue of Cristiano Ronaldo)...


... or this incredible ticket booth:


We learned from Steve Shields** that back in early 1976, when he went there, this ticket booth didn't have ondol but a stove, with an exhaust pipe to the street "belching horrible black smoke and noxious fumes. The ondol in this photo, as scary as it looks, was a marked improvement."

Steve also confirmed that the police monitored the audience, but "those cops were usually plain clothes. In any event, there were armed soldiers everywhere on the streets guarding against NK infiltrators. Always on the lookout for hair length violation too. We learned to simply mind our own business, behave properly."

Generations of citizens laughed, cried, and more or less 'properly' kissed in this Academy, now the sole survivor among the five movie theaters that were built in Wonju between 1945 and 1969***. The army base one, Gunin Geukjang, disappeared in 1996. The other four dotted the C-road (now Pyeongwon-ro), which logically became known as Cinema Road. But in 2006, they all closed: one year before, the first multiplex had landed in the city. Singonggan and the oldest of them all, Wonju Theater, were destroyed in 2008. The youngest one, Munhwa Theater, disappeared in 2015. Saving Academy Geukjang became an emergency.

I'm not talking therapeutic relentlessness: this landmark doesn't have to compete with Wonju multiplexes, nor with its nondescript facilities (e.g. Chiak Art Center or Baekun Art Hall). It will naturally and simply bring something a 355,000 citizen-strong city needs to make full cultural sense, but can never build from scratch. Not a time capsule stuck in the past, but a future-proof place all generations will love and feel proud of. From an urbanism point of view as well, that's a no brainer - just look at the map.

And there's a much greater potential than for a place like La Pagode, the very special movie theater I went to decades ago in Paris, closed for years and now in a miserable state, but on the right track to be renovated: Academy Geukjang is much bigger and open; a major landmark on a major axis. I loved to see the passion among the citizens, and from the Wonju Media Center. I will love to see Wonju youth, and people from much further away flock to it.


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** As he reacted to my post on Korea Heritage Society's Facebook page.
*** useful context from "'원주 마지막 단관 극장' 아카데미극장…"보존해야"" (Yonhap News Agency 20170926)

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Mayor Park to ground control

Seoul Mayor PARK Won-soon was found dead right after midnight last night in what appears to be a suicide triggered by accusations of sexual assaults. His body was found with the help of police dogs in a park near Sukjeongmun, in the Seongbuk-gu where he resided. The city of Seoul will hold mayoral funerals, and he shall rest in peace on Monday.

Suicide is always a tragedy, and I feel sorry for PARK, but I feel even more sorry for victims who won't get justice, since his death means all cases are now dropped. So it's up to the medias to investigate, or to the victims to come forward if they find enough courage to do so without the full framework of justice.
 
As all mayors, PARK leaves a mixed legacy, and as I did with his predecessors / as I will try to do with his successors, I didn't spare him with praise or criticism. If I welcomed PARK's late conversion to urbanism, and focus on urban regeneration, I disliked his doubletalk in favor of wealthy speculators and neighborhoods (not only in Gangnam and Yongsan), or his recent u-turn to reprioritize high-rise approaches. As I pointed out in the past, where Seoul mayors tend to boast 'hardware' realizations (Cheonggyecheon for LEE Myung-bak, Gwanghwamun Square for OH Se-hoon, Seoullo 7017 for PARK Won-soon), their main achievements may be on a more 'software' side: dedicated bus lanes for LEE, rebalancing budgets from wealthy areas to (re)vitalize the deprived ones for OH, and opening the big data flows for PARK (a sharing approach he prolonged during this coronavirus pandemic).

When I heard that Seoul mayor was missing, as the drama unfolded live on TV, as the rumor mill started to grind, I wondered like everyone what was happening. PARK Won-soon flying away for a scandal, that didn't surprise me at all. But PARK Won-soon perpetrating sordid sex abuses, or committing suicide, I would never have expected that.

While guessing which scandal he was trying to escape, I imagined all potential threads including the wildest conspiracy theories, from another Yonsei story (following the scandal surrounding his son, the prime estate sold by the city to the university for a song...) to a brush with Seoul underworld (suspiciously, seedy businesses were twice overly protected during the pandemic). Yet I would never have pictured him as a sexual predator. As for his disappearance, until the end I thought he planned a Houdini escape, his trek to the mountain a red herring cleverly mirroring ROH Moo-hyun's last moments. I truly believed that PARK Won-soon was too imbued with himself to kill himself. I was totally wrong, and that made me think again about what I thought I knew of the man.

The first time I remember meeting him was in 2009, with other members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when they were digging in directions that - to say the least - didn't always make ultra-conservatives very happy. The voices of victims were rising after decades of silence, and not long afterwards, LEE Myung-bak would torpedo the institution, derailing dynamics badly needed for Korea to start its healing. PARK looked focused and a bit shy, probably because the discussions were in English. Anyway, very different from the flamboyant Mayor I'd meet years later in many occasions (of course I don't think he'd remember well this guy among all the faces he came across).

This populist got a lucky break in politics when OH Se-hoon shot himself in the foot, but he was great at campaining, building support from the youth, and making top down initiatives look as if they popped up from citizens.

I remember a man who obviously could not bear not being likable, not looking young (he eventually fixed those recurring complaints about receding hair). Even his irrepressible presidential ambitions, never tamed by mediocre national polls, could become touching, pathetic.

More accessible than his predecessor (a different kind of narcissist), PARK was a genial host, particularly warm with journalists, media, and bloggers. Obsessed with photo ops to the point he created a mock office in city hall, this PR junkie was regularly mocked at by the way he called camera crews ahead of his 'spontaneous', 'selfless' shows. He could be quite direct about what he expected from you (your vote, your public praise), but didn't retaliate if you didn't play the game. Well this kind of games at least... I may be speculating again, but we know insecure narcissists have dark sides.

For sure, if PARK Won-soon often defended very noble causes, he can't and shouldn't be compared to ROH Moo-hyun.

His fall rather echoes that of AHN Hee-jung, and yesterday I couldn't help but remember the 2017 images of MOON Jae-in, PARK Won-soon, and AHN Hee-jung on that Gwanghwamun podium on victory night.

PARK's scandal happens at the very moment MOON is lambasted for sending AHN, for the funerals of his mother, flowers paid with taxpayers money; at the very moment the icon who for decades composed the soundtrack of Korea's democratic movements, AHN Chi-hwan, releases 'Irony', a song criticizing harshly self-proclaimed progressives who have turned not only into conservatives for their own power, but into existential threats to the democracy they are supposed to have fought for as activists (thinking of you, CHO Kuk, YOON Mee-hyang, and even you, at the very top).

We all have our greatnesses, weaknesses, and contradictions, but there are lines not to cross, particularly when you hold power. Even if it ends up with yet another suicide, yet more impunity for sexual abuses, may this tragedy help Korean politicians be less tempted to fail as humans.

"Just a few files to sort before Christmas, and we're back to you! (with @wonsoonpark in #Seoul City Hall)
" (20131224 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/415405587891884032)
"Good!" (20131224 - PWS's answer, from his former Twitter account - @wonsoonpark)


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Sunday, July 5, 2020

'Jeronimo' and beyond

Frankly, 'Jeronimo' should be screened in every Korean high school. I'm not saying that because the director, Joseph JUHN, happens to be a friend - his documentary deservedly received awards and critical acclaim, and even praise from the President in Cheong Wa Dae. 'Jeronimo' has a rare power to move and to change people, starting with Joseph himself, as he kept discovering new layers of a very rich character, and of the wonderful Korean diaspora in Cuba.



You may not have watched the documentary yet, or even heard of Jeronimo Lim, so I won't give any spoilers. Know that there's everything; between History (slavery, independence, revolution etc), his story, their love story, and so much more.

I saw how 'Jeronimo' moved and impacted diverse audiences in different contexts, not just here, and not just Koreans - be they from this or that side of the DMZ, of multicultural background, or from different parts of the Korean diaspora. Because this is not just about the Korean identity (koreanity? koreanness? koreanhood?), and certainly not about nationalism, to the contrary! Beyond this touching community, beyond the longing and belonging, this is about humanity, inclusive, universal kinship.

Even after five screenings, I'm always moved. And now I almost see Jeronimo Lim, Cheon-taek, Patricia, Nelsonito, and all the others as family.



In Paris, after a screening on Joseph's European tour, in the new Centre Culturel Coreen, we could see people from very different nationalities in the audience feel a personal connection, an echo to their own families.

I believe this documentary should be screened in every Korean high school because it can change in a very positive manner the way Koreans consider not only their own diaspora, but the diasporas they don't even suspect exist in Korea**.

"#Jeronimo's international tour in #Paris - screening at the new #CentreCulturelCoreen. Always a pleasure,  #JosephJuhn!
#헤로니모" (20200220 - @theseoulvillage - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/1230333467809984514)
The other day in Insadong, at KOTE***, Joseph JUHN gave a talk about the Korean diasporas of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Diasporas that, in the States, are on the streets to support #BlackLivesMatter, 28 years after the L.A. riots. Doing the right thing 31 years after Spike Lee's movie. Diasporas ready to become agents of positive change, within their communities and beyond. 





So (re)watch 'Jeronimo' on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=-CU7q4v-PxA), on Vimeo, or on your PPV platform (and check the website: jeronimothemovie.com).



Seoul Village 2020
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** not to mention the diasporas some of them don't want to start existing - see the sad episode of the Yemeni refugees, when hundreds of thousands petitioned for their expulsion, but also when more than  a few demonstrated to defend their rights.

*** Note that the first 'KOTE Dialog' honored another gifted friend, documentary photographer Harry CHUN. Come to think of it, I first met Joseph and Harry the same year, in 2016. Joseph was about to return to Cuba for his documentary, and Harry was planning a different kind of emotional journey, embarking with refugees on their way to and across Europe. Harry exhibited some of his stunning works at Sejong Cultural Center a few weeks ago (for the World Refugee Day Photograph Exhibition with UNHCR and UPI). Here too, a powerful mirror for everyone because each one of us can become a refugee tomorrow, and a particularly needful one in a nation that doesn't welcome many refugees.

#HarryChun #vernissage @ #SejongCenter. #세계난민사진전 #난민 #refugees
#harrychungphotography'' (20200617 - instagram.com/p/CBhvEv3JLeW)






Monday, June 22, 2020

Nine new museums in Seoul by 2023


Last Sunday*, Seoul announced nine new museums for the 3 years to come, after inaugurating five others over the past three years. As this map shows, downtown's dominance in cultural sites shall grow even stronger, but a few underserved neighborhoods will get their fair share:



The 5 museums inaugurated between 2017 and 2019 (NB this list doesn't count infrastructures that are not managed by the city, like the Seoul HOUR opened last year**:

The 9 museums to be inaugurated by 2023:

Melike Altinisik Architects' winning project for Robot Science Museum
As you can see, quantity doesn't always mean quality, but I'm looking forward to returning to neighborhoods I haven't roamed in a while... and I really can't wait to see that last one. Please, don't disappoint me!

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* see "사진·한식·로봇…서울시 '테마형 뮤지엄' 9개소 개관" (Seoul Metropolitan Government 20200622)
** see "Seoul Hall of Urbanism and Architecture, Seoul Biennale 2019 Symposium"

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