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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Squid Game - an addictive slap in the face

Impossible not to mention the cultural phenomenon of the year on these lines, but warning / full disclosure: I'm more than a bit biased since I played a (tiny tiny) role in Squid Game.

Just like I've done in the past with other works, I'll simply share my two cents about a creation that's already left a mark on our popular culture. I won't deliver any spoiler, and I won't disclose insider tips (as you may know, in this game, fair play is essential).

This guys knows (backstage with the Front Man).

What I can say is that joining this adventure, even for only a few days, was a very intense experience, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. And that the whole crew was amazing, delivering magic at every moment. If the series are such a visual feast, that's because a lot of positive energy and passion has been poured into every single detail.

I can also say that from the start, I knew something special was going to happen. The script was such a page-turner that I simply couldn't put it down. And I couldn't wait to see these wonderful characters come to life. Expectations were very high, but the series turned out to be even more enthralling than I'd thought. Even if I knew every twist ahead, I couldn't escape the flow, and enjoyed the show in total wonder. Squid Game is truly addictive: when it's over you're left in utter withdrawal and craving for more (BTW I'm pretty sure that 99.9% of all viewers let the next episode run right after that cliffhanger end of episode X). 

Netflix gave HWANG Dong-hyuk the creative freedom he needed to carry his vision. He could even slice the series in uneven sections. Releasing all episodes at once ahead of Chuseok proved to be a genius move: it not only allowed en masse binge watching, but also instant discussions across family and friends circles, Thanksgiving-style. So fun watching viewers reacting across the world at different stages of 'enlightenment'!

Now about the content itself.

Squid Game doesn't just reinvent the survivor game concept. It's a merciless social satire, literally a slap in the face, a wake up call with a message that resonates far beyond Korea. When it comes to exposing what's wrong in our societies, few stones are left unturned. A riveting story bound to spark conversations about absurd rat races, destructive competition, appalling injustice and unfairness, everyday despair, our relationship to money, to fellow humans... For the reader, it was quite great to imagine Koreans root for a North Korean defector or a (probably Muslim) Pakistani migrant worker (eventually India's Tripathi Anupam).

If there is a lot of wit and humor along the journey, HWANG isn't afraid of pushing hard where it hurts. No holds barred - even more viscerally than in 'Silenced' (2011). And it works. If Squid Game is so powerful and popular, that's because it's resolutely, unapologetically character-driven, radiating with an immense rainbow of memorable, flawed and fallible characters.

Of course, casting big names (LEE Jung-jae, PARK Hae-soo, WI Ha-joon) helped raise interest in the project from the beginning, but I was very curious to see who'd play Sae-byeok and Il-nam, and delighted to watch JUNG Ho-yeon and O Yeong-su give life to cult characters that will haunt you forever. What a roller coaster ride for KIM Joo-ryung along HAN Mi-nyeo's telluric mood swings, and what a diverse collection of Korean talents gracing the screen, even if only for a few moments each (from the hilarious chief police LEE Dong-yong to the discreet KIM Young-sun)...

One key, omnipresent actor in the series remains invisible all the way, yet never hiding behind a mask: the man in charge of the score. I was warned that JUNG Jae-il was a musical genius, and he didn't fail to surprise with his bewitching gamelan-like rhythms, or the playful, medieval joust touch that illuminated the games. Simply brilliant.

Quintessentially Korean, ultimately universal, Squid Game is already permeating the World's popular culture, generating memes, and fueling all speculations about what comes next. All I know is that for the alchemy to work once more, it will have to start with another awesome script. And I fully understand HWANG when he says a Season 2 would require several writers: hard to top that without bringing new voices.

'OMG North Korea hacked Netflix: Squid Game / 오징어 게임 was aired a few days before the rest of the World (military parade below)' (@theSeoulVillage 20210910 -

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Seoul 2030 - a software update

Mayor OH Se-hoon unveiled the 'Seoul Vision 2030' he announced on his inaugural address last April*, an occasion to highlight differences with his 'predesuccessor' PARK Won-soon.

By picking the slogan 'Seoul, a fair city that runs again', ever the ambitious OH delivers two not so subliminal political messages:

  • I want to rally all citizens who want an end to the unfair system that's controlling local and national politics, and 
  • it's not just Seoul that's moving again: I'm running again, with 2027 in sight.

The goal remains the same as a few months before he left office: to lift the capital into the World's top 5 cities. The difference is that since then, under PARK, Seoul has lost its momentum and regressed from 10th in 2010 to 17th last year, which makes the task all the more daunting. To foot the KRW 48 tn bill (USD 41 bn), OH bets on a surge in real estate revenues as well as on undisclosed budget trade-offs. Not sure the equation stands, but Seoul must do something to stop the bleeding as its population shrinks and its businesses struggle.

This 'Seoul Vision 2030' is more about software than about hardware. Typically, it doesn't challenge the urban planning part of 'Seoul Master Plan 2030' laid out in 2015, with its triangle of international hubs (historic center / Yeouido-Yeungdeungpo / Gangnam) and its 7 metropolitan hubs (Yongsan, Sangam-DMC-Susaek, Cheongnyangni-Wangsimni, Jamsil, Magok, Gasan-Daerim, Changdong-Sanggye). Such macro projects are freight trains that can't be rerouted at will. OH can't even stop lighter projects such as the controversial Gwanghwamun Square revamping**; only pause to adjust and adapt in order to limit the negative impacts and to improve urban continuity.

But of course, this being Seoul, a lot of real estate remains on the menu. And hundreds of thousands of new dwellings will be added to the existing oversupply.

The bad news is that redevelopment is unleashed on a large scale, with significant deregulation and the removal of key constraints (F.A.R.), and that a lot of the few remaining Seoul villages could suffer.

"Old #Seoul neighborhoods potentially open for redevelopment jumps from 14 to 50% through #Seoul's new #urbanism guidelines... brace for the worst." (20210527 -

Focusing around certain subway stations may help spare some of them, and result in Hapjeong-izing more neighborhoods (no mentions about new subway projects, but that could come, as usual, closer to next year's elections...):

"#Seoul confirms plan to 'revitalize' #subway station areas (250m radius around stations), starting with 13 pilot projects. Higher rise allowed, mixed uses residential / commercial / offices / services. Will #Hapjeong-style clusters multiply? I'd prefer more stations. #urbanism" (20210705 -
On the upside (literally), new neighborhood parks are planned in proto-urban limbos around Seoul mountains. If done properly (that's a big if), it could paradoxically protect the mountains themselves by creating sanitized but green buffer leisure spaces in stead of unlimited, littered gateways that push unruly crowds deeper into the wild. Most visitors would enjoy a pleasant moment without needing to reach any further, leaving more space to wildlife and respectful mountain lovers.
"#Seoul creates new neighborhood parks in decrepit mountainous areas where development projects have failed for 20 years, starting this year in #Cheonwangsan (#Cheongwandong and #Hangdong, #Gurogu) and #Choasan (#Changdong, #Dobonggu and later #Wolgyedong, #Nowongu). #urbanism"
(@theSeoulVillage 20210910 -

Seoul targets a 40% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050, but to achieve that, will it continue to outsource part of the dirty job to Gyeonggi-do (see "Seoul Power Play: One Less Nuclear Plant, One More Coal Plant")?

Obsessed with Seoul's business competitiveness, OH Se-hoon wants to seize a momentum and snatch as much of the Hong Kong exodus away from Singapore as possible, and to attract FDIs getting cautious about Korea's neighbors Japan (who wants to be the next Carlos GHOSN?) and China (hard-soft power supremacy challenged worldwide, investors wary of XI Jinping's authoritarian moves). Foreign media were already flocking in before South Korea's government pushed its own laws stiffling press freedom.  In that context, the creation of an agency modeled after Singapore's EDB makes perfect sense. How it articulates with existing entities (SBA etc) remains to be seen.

How Yeouido can turn into an international finance magnet without structural reforms at the national level also puzzles me.

Like during his first mandate, OH wants to boost international tourism, this time up to 20M visitors a year. He insists on culture which is of course essential, but that will take more than a 'Seoul Festa' and kpop events.

I'm more interested in how Seoul intends to nurture and boost the local startup ecosystem, deep and wide. Hosting 40 unicorns by 2030? that's mostly for the show. Building new clusters? as if there weren't enough already... I prefer the concept of mentoring programs for seniors: recent trends already show more 50-year+ executives joining previously almost exclusively young crews, but there's a need for a much broader-reaching, more inclusive approach. 

The 5 pillars of 'Seoul Vision 2030' are "fairness, coexistence, safety***, future sensitivity, global leadership", and 'future sensitivity' is a nice way of saying the whole population should be involved, innovation requires pedagogy and respect for everyone.

"Fairness", and "coexistence" are the most beautiful and difficult challenges. Seoul aims at equal opportunity, fostering women activity and youth employment, seniors access to lifelong learning programs, Seoul Learn online education platform for underprivileged students... Basic income will even be tested. Ending the gender war among younger generations should be added as a core Seoul Development Goal.

By the way, on Thursday, the 3rd SBAU (Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism) kicked off. An anticlimatic event in a most complex climate, but always the opportunity to connect a few new dots and to confront different visions of different cities:

Seoul Village 2021
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* The launch of a Seoul Vision 2030 Committee was the 5th pledged made by the new Seoul Mayor:

The 5 pledges of #Seoul mayor #OhSehoon (NB: good luck with that):" (@theSeoulVillage 20210428 -

** see among others "Gwanghwamun Square 3.0 re-Deep-Surfaces"

*** mostly in a pandemic context.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Miracle Korea Needs

378 Afghans airlifted from Kabul joined Korea yesterday. After landing in Incheon Airport, the usual covid tests, and a night in Gimpo, they were moved this morning to Jincheon and the National Human Resources Development Institute, where they will spend their quarantine.

This 'Operation Miracle' echoes the 'Ship of Miracles' of 1950 that saved 14,000 people from Hungnam, packed in the SS Meredith Victory as North Korean armies closed in.

"This is not the #SSMeredithVictory leaving #Hungnam but a US freight plane leaving #Kabul. We don't know which talents will emerge from this #ShipofMiracles, we only know that it will not return to save more lives." (@theSeoulVillage - 20210817 -

These 'special contributors' to South Korea, who already proved their skills and value*, come with their families and kids - 180 including a few newborns! A significant community to build upon.

After the Yemen refugee PR disaster, Korea must prove that it can properly welcome migrants from countries in turmoil. Jincheon-gun authorities showed the right example by displaying welcome banners in Afghan, English, and Korean. 

Of course, full success will require profound changes in mindsets across a nation where minorities of color tend to experience racism, and where Islamophobia keeps spreading, fueled by fearmongers and people who wrongly claim to represent a religion founded around a symbol of inclusion and tolerance who happened to be a brown-skinned Jewish Palestinian refugee.

I'm hopeful, because Korea has already spectacularly improved against certain prejudices by being more exposed to diversity and multiculturalism**, and because these newcomers come not only in numbers, but also with experience. This is the perfect occasion for the nation to show positive progress, and genuine cultural leadership.

This cultural evolution is the miracle Korea needs. So everybody, a warm welcome to our brothers and sisters from Afghanistan!

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* "Afghan evacuees in S. Korea arrive at temporary shelter in Jincheon" (Yonhap News 20210827)

** including through the experiences of its own diaspora.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Seoul: inhuman, all too human

"If Paris were a recurring hero in series of novels, Seoul would rather be a shape-shifting character, always mutating between two short stories. That could be the very definition of a city: a very real work of fiction always trying to liberate itself from its authors."

Published not long after Park Won-soon took office, my essay on Seoul urbanism is now available in English. You can download it for free on "Seoul: inhuman, all too human"*.

Fun to see what changed and what didn't since then. I might consider a sequel, which would probably cover the successes, failures, and impostures of urban regeneration.

(photo: urban farming along Danghyeoncheon, before Nowon-gu revamped it).



One megalopolis, a hundred villages, a thousand visages

1) The industry of dreams – the ideal city

. Industrial housing revolution: from the virtuous cycle to the bubble

. From mass market consumer goods to fashion and services, from utopia to

2) Humans in transit

. Communities and shared spaces

. Life and survival of villages

3) Ideal city 2.0 and new utopias

. The end of an era, but not yet the end of the real estate dream

. From "hard city" to "soft city"

. From New Town to Human Town, villages are back in favor

Seoul Village 2021
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* for the original version (in French), see "Inhuman, all too human Seoul"

Wednesday, June 16, 2021


'My life is not your porn'. You've seen these posters on the streets, when thousands of victims and outraged citizens protested against Korea's pervasive digital sex crimes.

That's also the title of Heather Barr's report for Human Rights Watch*, which confirms Korea's appalling softness when it comes to fighting online sex crime (let alone sex crime in general), an inaction that encouraged a phenomenon now pervasive to the point this high tech nation is plagued with a 'molka' pandemic (perverts hiding mini cameras in public restrooms).

Obviously, so far, protecting the victims or even recognizing their trauma has never been a priority for Korean governments. But now that they've been themselves exposed internationally, let's hope that it will force them to, at long last, act and fight seriously for the victims and against perpetrators.

And again, it's not just digital sex crimes. Korea can't wait any longer to have zero tolerance for sex crimes in general. And to fight against gender discrimination, a cultural enabler to all abuses. 
Also. Please, the time has come to put an end to the artificial gender war that's been destroying Korea's youth over the past few years. Make no mistake, we're talking about the present and the future of a nation with social, economic, and political impacts. Such fallacies can be as toxic and dangerous for democracy as the 'clash of civilizations' a few years ago or conspiracy theories nowadays. Demanding justice for victims and against criminals has nothing to do with being male or female, and Korea has never been stronger than all citizens unite around actual justice.

In this context, the PPP's new leader, LEE Jun-seok, cannot embody the future of Korea as long as he embodies the fight against gender equality. If this ambitious young politician wants to pass for a modern reformer, he has to prove it, and to convince young Korean males to reject anti-feminism. I doubt that's on top of his agenda, but it will be once Korea decides to become a cultural leader in this field as well.

Meanwhile, kudos to Heather, and to all the victims who overcame their traumas and broke their silence to testify for her report.

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* available on HRW's website: "My life is not your porn - Digital sex crimes in Korea".

Monday, May 3, 2021

'Encounters between Korean Art and Literature in the Modern Age' - Night at the Museum

For Korean culture, those were troubled and fascinating times; times of repression and expression, times of Western influences, Japanese occupation, and Korean affirmation. 

Those were modern times, and yet intemporal times. 

When young stars didn't just remain neatly aligned in their respective constellations. When pens and brushes blurred the lines between literature and modern art. With such a conjunction of talent, despair, hope, and urgency.

In a brilliant exhibition, MMCA brings us back to that era in - what better symbol? - its Deoksugung branch.

We see young minds avidly embrace the avant-garde, experiment with sometimes a French touch (Rene Clair, Jean Cocteau, JEONG Ji-yong's 'Cafe France'), we see painters and writers meet and collaborate, we see writers and critics become visual artists, we browse a mesmerizing library with rare first editions (KIM Sowol's Azaleas, MA Hae-song''s fairy tales illustrated by LEE Byung-hyun and KIM Jeong-hwan...), and scores of newspaper extracts - a bit like XIXth century Europe, Korea experienced a democratization of literature, only with a much more powerful poetic force. 

Strolling through the palace by night made the visit even more magical:

 A great exhibition, reminiscent of the exceptional tribute to LEE Jung-seob in the same building:

'Captivating LEE Jung-seob exhibition in MMCA Deoksugung, Seoul' (@theseoulvillage - 20160806 -

KIM Whanki takes a lot of space as he tends to do in collections, but the zeitgeist is much better framed by this 'Portrait of a friend': gifted artist GU Bon-ung capturing genius poet YI Sang:

If the mapping of this creative galaxy aptly remains focused on people always on the move (more than a few ended in North Korea), I couldn't help but imagine a Seoul Museum of History version featuring geographical maps. Just to see where all Guinhoe members lived, how far from Seochon or Yi Sang's Jebi Madang...

We know writers and painters can be artists, authors, neither, or both. And sometimes it runs in the family. PARK Taewon's grandson happens to be an author who can sketch, and even do decent movies (BONG Joon-ho).

Byeolgeongon July 1933 - cover art by HWANG Jeong-su

  • Encounters between Korean Art and Literature in the Modern Age at MMCA Deoksugung (Galleries 1 to 4): until May 30th, 2021, free entrance (except for the entrance to the palace).

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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

From zombie maeul to seed village - from fake startup communities to real Communities-as-a-Startup

As far as train wrecks go, the demographic ones are the easiest to predict. And Korea's bullet train is not exactly slowing down.

Last year, the nation officially posted its first negative growth on record, but COVID-19 had little to do with it. Yes, the pandemic claimed over one thousand lives and that's far too many, but that's also only a fraction of what most countries experienced. Yes, it hindered Foreign influx, but it also drew many members of the Korean diaspora back to the motherland. Yes, it will also impact future births, but last year only prolonged distressing trends: 2020's record low fertility rate (0.84) was preceded by an already scary one (0.92 in 2019).

If you think 2020 was bad, 2021 starts even worse...

... and the previous years already showed how bballi bballi Korea was aging even before the pandemic

In this sub-zero-sum game, the only regions that progressed spectacularly, Sejong and Gyeonggi-do, did it often at the expense of Seoul: the former benefiting from the transfer of governmental administrations, the latter from suicidal real estate policies that further accelerated the capital's decline (now well below the 10 M threshold it passed for the first time in 1988). Yet in March 2021, even Gyeonggi-do posted its first population decrease since the 1980s.

All over the nation, more rural localities are facing extinction*, and Korea continues its urbanistic nonsense, adding more dwellings to an already overflowing market because decision makers don't know any other translation of 'make homes more affordable' (what it needs) than 'build new homes' (which it doesn't need). I'll just repost below part of the rant I wrote five years ago (see "Seoul summerscapes: death, taxes, and budongsan" - 20160917, and all previous posts related to demography):

Now, the pandemic did act a bit like a catalyst at some level. If, so far, the nation hasn't implemented a real lockdown (except for Daegu), many have experienced remote working or remote learning at home in confined conditions. Like everywhere, many are dreaming of individual homes, more private space, a greener environment, many are reassessing their priorities, the rat race. And like everywhere, more city dwellers are considering rural lives. 

Of course, if there's always been a market for the Larzac / flower power fringes, most people wouldn't give up a certain level of services. And the 'winning' regions end up losing their souls when they pour concrete over their pristine shores to lure more city slickers (e.g. Jeju).

Can and should all rural communities be saved? I don't think so. But rural desertification can and should be prevented where it makes sense in a sustainable way.

Spontaneous grassroots initiatives can work, but local authorities can also play a role. What matters is that no one should play it selfishly, or with a short-term vision. Regional and national authorities an also help, particularly in order to mutualize and share resources and to make sure that as few people as possible fall out of the grid on key services and infrastructures.

Take the digital divide, for instance. Broadband coverage being strategic, it has become rather common for regulators and local authorities to push for network sharing schemes between operators, just like SK Telecom, KT Mobile, and LG U+ did last week: the government selected 131 rural and coastal areas which will then be covered by all 3 players, even if it wouldn't have made economic sense for any of them otherwise.

That's a good example on how a macro approach can help prioritize and focus the efforts. Local authorities should also pool to help prevent the closure of such essential infrastructures as hospitals or schools, which often accelerate the down spiral and seal the fate of several localities.

Education is paramount, and recent innovations and changes of habits could help change the equation for endangered institutions. We know that remote learning can become part of the mix, but also that some level of physical presence is essential for pupils. In order to maintain schools with a good level of education, why not have for instance confirmed teachers teach in parallel in different classrooms, with a junior assistant in each? 

Some worry about the absence of cultural life, but in Korea, I've already seen artists move their studios to very rural settings, or an old, remote industrial site converted into an art residence. And more fundamentally, there is no such thing as a cultural desert where a community is alive. Involving existing communities guarantees a cultural continuum, a transmission of the knowledge of the land and its history, but this is the ideal opportunity to bring more diversity. In Europe, quite a few rural communities have been revived by Foreigners who came to love them, and felt the love in return. A dying Italian village was repopulated with refugees and there as well, essential services could reopen. 

To help tilt the balance in the right direction, authorities can subsidize essential services. It's good to make sure that within a certain radius there's at least one store that can also provide basic postal / logistical services (not just a mini local platform for the pervasive delivery services). Once you enter a virtuous cycle of organic revival, other infrastructures can be envisioned - e.v. charging station, mini shuttle operations...

You don't want to build something as artificial as these cult-like life-on-Mars simulator bubbles, but grow reasonably ambitious, sustainable, local, impact projects. Transform zombie villages into seed villages where you want to enjoy life and why not, have kids. 

I realize that the concept of 'seed village' is already used for something very different, less inclusive. I was also into startup references. When I observe Korea's and not just Seoul's startup ecosystem, I see a lot of zombie startups that don't make sense, have no business model or future, and only exist and survive because they know how to milk the blind cows of public subsidies (and more than a few private funds, mind you).

I strongly believe that every region claiming to be the next startup magnet (in other words, this being Korea, all regions) should devote a portion of its startup budget to not-necessarily-tech, communities-as-startups approaches. If they manage to build clusters that's great, but in parallel it would be nice for Korea to build a grid of such CaaS (not Containers as a Service but Communities as a Startup). A human network, a community of communities sharing best practices instead of local authorities competing with each others.

It shouldn't be just a Bring-your-own-job party for young entrepreneurs, but an attractive alternative for people of all backgrounds and vocations. And the perfect occasion to fulfill overlooked yet strategic land-oriented missions: for instance, Korea needs to improve its forest maintenance, and to reduce its agricultural goods / food dependency through a more sustainable farming.

Now seems the time to seriously give it a try.

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* see interesting data about the local extinction risk index in "Korea Is Aging Rapidly" (The Dongguk Post 20210412)

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