Sunday, November 16, 2014

It's the democracy, stupid

So Japan is in Recession, and Shinzo Abe is expected to call for snap elections to be held mid December, giving Japan a chance to avoid the biggest R: the Restoration of Imperial Japan. For that, beyond Abe, the country must remove from power Nippon Kaigi, the extremist lobby that controls its political system*. Is that possible?


1) Are Abenomics at last meeting reality?

From the start, I wrote on this excuse for a blog that Abenomics were just a non-sustainable smokescreen to bribe the population at their own cost, the time for Abe to fulfill his main agenda: AbeIGNomics**. Tax hikes were supposed to make for the further deterioration of the Japanese deficit, but Abe didn't have the time to implement the second wave. Now he's kicking the can down the road, and pledging that he won't raise taxes because he can't win the vote otherwise.

More than ever, the equation can't work. Anyway, economy's never been the aim of Abe's game. But he certainly doesn't want to lose for the second time his PM seat because of the economy and money scandals involving members of his cabinet. Can he scam voters once more with the same tale?

2) Can Abe's pseudo-diplomatic offensive pay?

Ahead of the APEC and G20 meetings, Abe appeared in an international TV campaign promoting the image of Japan as a peaceful nation helping others, and I almost choke each time I see the ad with this impostor shamelessly piggybacking on a NGO's noble deeds... he who pushes so hard for the re-militarization of Japan and the revision of its peaceful constitution! he who maintains that the Imperial army never waged any war of aggression, never committed any war crime!
Shinzo Abe already started his campaign. On international TV. With government money (Japan sharing campaign)! Posing as a peacemaker! #AbeIGNomics - 20141113
Shinzo Abe badly needed to raise his international profile ahead of the elections, and he seems to have bagged a trilateral meeting hosted by Japan for next year. I wouldn't be surprised if we heard later that he had given some guarantees to Xi Jinping or Park Geun-hye, something like I won't anymore visit Yasukuni as a Prime Minister. A small price to pay for a man who's already pledged not to attack the Kono statement before going back at it.

3) With or without Abe as PM, will Nippon Kaigi be confirmed as the de facto ruler of Japan?

Abe didn't change. Never did, never will. He'll try whatever it takes to remain at the helm of the nation to pursue his goal of destroying peaceful, post-war Japan. And he wouldn't want to be sidelined by his own majority, and to see the LDP push another candidate. Take Koizumi's former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, for instance: that political weasel already proved that he could used leverage Abe's outrageous traits to position himself as a more consensual player (he stopped supporting Yasukuni visits when it helped him gain momentum within the party, then returned to it when it was all the rage). Of course, like most contenders, Tanigaki is tied to Nippon Kaigi... 

Fresh faces keep emerging in a lobby that lost at least 3 old timers over the past few months (Abe advisor Hisahiko Okazaki, the economist Yasuhiko Oishi, and the ultimate die-hard Imperial Japan soldier Hiroo Onoda).

In less than one month, Japan is unlikely to purge its political system from Nippon Kaigi, but if it could make it lose its majority at the Diet (289 of all 480 lawmakers these days), that could be a start, and a positive signal.

A contrario, a confirmation of Abe and his Nippon Kaigi friends would further weaken Japan's endangered democracy.

For the moment, revisionism keeps permeating the society at large: a recent Jiji Press poll showed that already 45% of the Japanese want the Kono Statement about Imperial Japan sexual slavery system reviewed***.

And Abe keeps making the 'best' of his tenure by trying to undermine the nation at all levels, most recently by allowing his government, expert in historical revisionism, to decide which documents to classify as state secrets, and to crucify leakers****.


In any case, Japan is deciding its own future, even when it refuses to decide (See "Saving Japan - Let's fall the Indecision Tree"):

Saving Japan - Let's fall the Indecision Tree
And for those of us who refuse to see this beautiful nation (self)destroy, let's remember to always stand for Japan. Never against it, only against its enemies from within:

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* see "Nippon Kaigi and friends exposed, at last", "'Comfort Women': No Resolution Without Resoluteness. From Everyone, Please".
** see all posts related to Shinzo Abe.
*** even if that embryo of nano-apology only refers to former sex slaves as the euphemistic 'comfort women' label ("45% of Japanese want ‘comfort women’ statement reviewed, survey by Jiji Press suggests" - The Japan Times 20141114)
**** "Prosecutors to be tapped for secrecy panel, in hopes of mollifying law’s opponents" (The Japan Times 20141116)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

China Dependence

If XI Jinping doesn't eat himself to death, he'll be leading China well into the next decade. And as he hosted the APEC meeting, he already tried to pose as a new breed of World leader, some kind of a super-blob absorbing every disturbance:
- Airpocalypse? Suspended for the occasion. It came back with a vengeance afterwards, and Seoul got a mean whiff of it for Suneung.
- Democracy? Distant umbrella clicking sounds muffled by thick red padded walls. Even the World's supposedly ultimate Democratic leader came bruised up (a red-painted America for Obama's last Midterm Elections).
- TPP? Sorry to hear about your China-free Trans-Pacific Partnership struggle. Here's our China-led Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). And Vladimir? I'm not forgetting our Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, we'll invite Modi and India soon. Meanwhile, here's another big contract for you...
- Shinzo Abe? The Imperial Japan revivalist thought their handshake would mark a diplomatic victory for him, Xi turned it into a public humiliation (a red face as visible as the dot on the flag for Abe, once again shaming the nation).

Meanwhile, South Korea and Park Geun-hye confirmed their honeymoon with China and Xi Jinping by concluding their FTA deal, a few days after the official launch of clearinghouse services by China’s Bank of Communications branch in Seoul (November 6).

I need a pull
We got a deal
Do you think Vlad the Impaler is coming our way?
Asia Pacific leaders beamed down to the size of blue cells.
If you remember the survey recently led by the Asan Institute on "South Korean Attitudes on China" (20140703) and "South Korean Attitudes on the Korea-US Alliance and Northeast Asia" (20140424), Koreans seem to consider their growing dependence on China as ineluctable, and they don't feel so comfortable about it.

But Koreans are not so comfortable with their economic situation and gloomy demographics either, and many are ready to make a quick buck, whatever the long term consequences. 

Jeju illustrates perfectly the double-edged sword of Korea's growing dependence on China. Local authorities opened Pandora's box in February 2010 by offering F-2 visas to anyone who invests at least KRW 500 m in real estate, and the Chinese jumped in. Mind you: not just as political risk management tools or evasion tactics. As of June 2014, they owned 5.92 million sqm of land worth KRW 580.7 bn, up from 20,000 sqm worth KRW 0.4 bn in 2009. Over the same period, US citizens gained only 4% more land, and Japanese citizens even lost 2% of their total.*

This year, Jeju will welcome over 5M visitors from China. But beyond the construction of hotels and resorts, China doesn't boost local jobs or consumption**. And at this pace, the island could become a Costa del Sol - style environmental + real estate mess. Local authorities are starting to realize the unsoundness of the equation, but Korea opens other regions to similar schemes, to the risk of creating bubbles, and of sucking much needed steam out of nearby projects that are already struggling.

Otherwise, for places like Songdo, bringing China in the equation helps fill existing towers. And speaking of Incheon: look how the city revived its Chinese heritage over the past decades, from one extreme (a community below the radar) to another (a brand new, colorful Chinatown).

In Seoul, Yeonnam-dong (the southern half of Yeonhui-dong until it joined Mapo-gu) enjoys a long history with China too, and it still shows in the architecture, even if you have to dig deeper and deeper to find one of these 'fusion hanok':
Yeonnam-dong hanok tended to have higher ceilings. Fusion architecture for people from Taiwan. (@theseoulvillage 20140815) -
Restaurant-wise, there are still a few great Chinese institutions in the neighborhood, but for how long? If flocks of Chinese tourists have recently started pouring in, that's to visit the new duty free shops operated by their compatriots in closed touristic circuits that obviously generate a lot of business, but not much for the local economy. Seoulites won't keep coming if they see Yeonnam-dong's charming streets packed with jay-parked tourist buses. Next thing you know, these closed circuits will include big buffets that will further degrade the neighborhood.

Don't get me wrong: of course China is a chance for Korea at all levels, I'm really happy to see two countries I love develop friendly and fruitful relations, and that's perfectly normal that a big chunk of China's touristic bonanza ends up in Chinese hands. 

I'm just worried about the pace and reach of change, and its impacts on Korea's economy, society, and politics.

Not because China's influence is bad in itself, but because massive and rapid changes could trigger anti-Chinese reactions which could not only damage the relations between both nations, but the multicultural fabric of Korea itself.

Likewise, when I mention political issues, that's not only at the national level (typically: okay for outsourcing part of  North Korea control, not okay to subscribe to the Northeast Project's 'Hanschluss' agenda): who and what will certain local authorities ultimately run for?

We're probably not at that stage yet, but I believe that Korean leaders should keep these risks in mind to work on a sustainable partnership. And that since this partnership cannot be balanced, to strengthen other partnerships in parallel.

See also:

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* "Chinese snap up real estate on Jeju" (Korea JoongAng Daily - 20141103), "Surge in Chinese investors in South Korea’s Jeju Island since 2009 may be to secure residency" (South China Morning Post - 20140903), "Chinese investment is taking over Jeju Island" (The Hankyoreh - 20141004)
** "Chinese Investment in Jeju Not Bringing Consumption, Employment to Region" (Business Korea - 20140829)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nippon Kaigi and friends exposed, at last

I recently wrote this piece on the Japanese revisionist lobby Nippon Kaigi: "En finir avec Nippon Kaigi, le lobby révisionniste japonais" (Rue89 - 2014/11/02*)

That's in French, because if my compatriots are not much aware of what happened then or what's happening now in this region, they are used to debates about revisionism, including about France's own troubled past.
Furthermore we love to legislate about it. Our constitutionalists are not so happy with our 'memorial laws', because legislators have no business writing history (particularly the way they did in 2005 about colonialism!), but I like the fact that the negation of the Holocaust is considered a crime (Gayssot Act, 1990), and that a European treaty backs it**. 

Fundamentally, I want more people, more media, more human rights groups, to stand for Japan, globally. I want the anti-Japanese wave to become pro-Japanese, and the true anti-Japanese forces to be exposed. 

Remember that Shinzo Abe is not anti-Korea: he needs Koreans to continue playing his game and waging anti-Japanese campaigns. Korea must be resolutely pro-Japan by supporting the Japanese democracy, the Article 9.

Japan will triumph against Imperial Japan when, by its own initiative, it resolves the Imperial Japan sexual slavery issue, and gets rid of Nippon Kaigi and its avatars (see "'Comfort Women': No Resolution Without Resoluteness. From Everyone, Please."). This, of course, can't happen without a profound grassroot change.

Across the globe, the international community must speak up for Japan and against its enemies, and Nippon Kaigi is the perfect vehicle to expose Shinzo Abe and his friends: their agenda cannot be clearer, beyond rewriting history, they want to get rid of Japan's peaceful post-war democracy, to restore the Imperial regime, to cancel peace treaties and human rights laws... These are the guys who pretend to defend Japan and terrorize anybody who stands for the truth because they say they bring shame on Japan. The time has come for them to feel the shame, and to be rejected by their own people.

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* initially on my French blog: "En finir avec Nippon Kaigi" (blogules - 2014/10/30)
** see "Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime, concerning the criminalisation of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems" (Treaty 189)
Article 6 – Denial, gross minimisation, approval or justification of genocide or crimes against humanity
1    Each Party shall adopt such legislative measures as may be necessary to establish the following conduct as criminal offences under its domestic law, when committed intentionally and without right:
distributing or otherwise making available, through a computer system to the public, material which denies, grossly minimises, approves or justifies acts constituting genocide or crimes against humanity, as defined by international law and recognised as such by final and binding decisions of the International Military Tribunal, established by the London Agreement of 8 August 1945, or of any other international court established by relevant international instruments and whose jurisdiction is recognised by that Party.
2    A Party may either
  • a    require that the denial or the gross minimisation referred to in paragraph 1 of this article is committed with the intent to incite hatred, discrimination or violence against any individual or group of individuals, based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, as well as religion if used as a pretext for any of these factors, or otherwise 
  • b    reserve the right not to apply, in whole or in part, paragraph 1 of this article.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Haunting performances

Sunday Special: here's the video of Miyeon and Jechun's 'Cheong Alive', the opening concert of the 2014 Jeonju International Sori Festival I mentioned the other day (see "Cheong Alive, Jeonju Kicking"). Of course, it only conveys part of this amazing take at the great pansori 'Simcheongga':

0. 프롤로그 (Prologue) ~03;51
1. 아이고마누라 (Oh, My dear wife!) ~07;28
2. 삼배전대외동지어 (Mr. Sim carries a ramie bag on his left shoulder) ~09;04
3. 아버지듣조시오 (Please hear me out, father) ~14;04
4. 시비따라건너간다 (Go over Following the Maid) ~16;58
5. 중올라간다/네가바로심청이냐 (A buddhist monk passing by rescues Mr. Sim) ~22;37
6. 엇모리볼레로 (Dancing with Eotmori Bolero) ~27;25
7. 비나이다 (Cheong prays for Father) ~30;14
8. 우리는 남경장사 선인으로 (We are sailors doing business with the Chinese) ~32;45
9. 아이고 아버지/허허이게 웬일이여 (Father, do not worry about me - What would I see if you sell yourself to open my eyes?) ~37;22
10. 따라간다 (Cheong follows the sailors) ~41;52
11. 범피중류 (Drifting Along in the Sea) ~44;03
12. 한곳을 당도하니 (Cheong reaches Indang Water) ~50;32
13. 북놀음 (Drumming for Cheong) ~56;05
14. 닻감아라 (The Sailors Sigh song) ~57;24
15. 위의도 장헐시구 (The dragon king is delighted to see Cheong) ~01;01;42
16. ALIVE (Cheong ALIVE) ~01;03;50
17. 이 잔치를 배설키는 (Wishing for reunion with father) ~01;06;49
18. 아이고 내 자식아 (Cheong's father sighs) ~01;09;38
19. 예예 소맹인 아뢰리다 (Mr. Sim Opens His Eyes) ~01;14;39
20. 에필로그 (Epilogue) ~01;18;17

I'm still haunted by the music leading Cheong to the sea, and announcing the janggu drummers.

And ever since last spring, I've also been haunted by PARK Jeong-ja's voice and performance in Incheon's Namdong Arts Hall. In this theatrical interpretation of KIM Byeol-ah's "Farewell Forever and Ever, Farewell Forever" ("영영이별 영이별"), she is Princess Jeongsun, the wife of King Danjong, at a turning point in Korean history. About the story of this king that never was and the Korea that never was, see "King Danjong and Korea's Curse".

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Gwanghwamun, Donhwamun, and the Tale of two Royal Roads

Seoul is about to renovate the two streets leading to its main royal gates: Sejong-daero (Gwanghwamun, Gyeongbokgung's gate) and Donhwamun-ro (Donhwamun, Changdeokgung's gate). Needless to say, these are key locations, and authorities have to make sure that they do it right, and that to start with, there is a consistent and sustainable vision for Seoul's future.

In the case of Sejong-daero, the idea is to attach Gwanghwamun Square to the Western side, which somehow means a return to the initial plan of a wider area in front of the Sejong Cultural Center. The main motivation seems to be money: the massive foot traffic on the square would generate much more revenue there. Why not indeed? Let's see what it means when you consider the two most likely scenarii:
  • If the plaza is extended westwards: 6 lanes of traffic will disappear, and I'm perfectly okay with that, but only if all impacts are taken into account, and I'm not sure that's the case. To be consistent, Seoul authorities must have a clear strategy to reduce car traffic downtown - like most major cities. Unfortunately, several projects (e.g. from Jahamun to the Yulgok Tunnel) seem bound to generate more bottlenecks in a near future.
  • If a new plaza is built to the west instead of the central one: we are back to square(!) one and a huge highway in the middle of the city - 12 lanes of traffic! It would destroy not only Seoul's most valuable perspective (Sejongdaero-Gwanghwamun-Gyeongbokgung-Bugaksan-Bukhansan), but also Seoul's most vital pedestrian connector downtown (see links at the end of this post).
(addendum 20141025) Rendering of the project where the Gwanghwamun Plaza is moved westwards, recreating the central highway that used to ruin downtown Seoul (source "광화문광장, 세종문화회관 쪽으로 이전 추진" (Hankyoreh 20140930). A total urban disaster, but maybe the actual aim of the game is to prevent demonstrations, the only case where it would make sense (much easier to close the area with much fewer troops).
I'm against the plan to move Gwanghwamun Plaza next to Sejong Center: makes more money, but destroys royal perspective + cars rule again - 20141011


In the case of Donhwamun-ro, the idea is to boost tourism in a major but under-exploited historic neighborhood. A couple of years ago, I applauded the planned destruction of the two gas stations that faced the gate, but also shared concerns about the impacts of the Yulgok Tunnel on area. In this case, I'm at the same time glad that, at long last, the Changdeokgung-Jongmyo axis is considered as a key asset, and very much worried about how the whole project could backfire if handled carelessly: this is typically one of these time capsules you want to deal with carefully. How to revive the area without 'bukchonizing' it, without creating an artificial touristic hotspot and worse, a short-lived speculation heaven?

This area has already significantly evolved over the past decade. Here are the neighborhoods directly concerned:
  • At the center, covering Donhwamun-ro itself: Waryong-dong and Myo-dong (the former also includes large sections of the palace, and even a part of Jongmyo - otherwise mostly in the Hunjeong-dong sphere). 
  • To the north: Wonseo-dong and the Palace
  • To the west, towards Unhyeongung and Insa-dong: Unni-dong, Nagwon-dong, Donui-dong, and the already endangered Ikseon-dong.
  • To the east, towards Jongmyo: Gwonnon-dong, Bongik-dong
  • To the south: Jongno-3-ga and Cheonggyecheon
Let's see this new project* in details:
  • Where the gas stations used to be, an exhibition hall for traditional culture and a Gugak Arts Center will be constructed, creating a hanokish triangle with the gate. How to feed these cultural venues without depriving existing structures remains to be seen, but it's clearly a much more UNESCO-friendly scenery than the love motels behind.
  • The 600 m stretch between Donhwamun and Cheonggyecheon will be "reconstructed", and I'm afraid this street could lose its vintage charm. This is a perfectly proportioned street lined with old trees, so please don't try to 'reconstruct' it. You wouldn't want to ruin everything the Jogyesa-way (its streetside now a sanitized disneyland), or even the Jeongdong-gil-way (see the "Jeongdong-kill" asphalt mess). On the positive side, Donhwamun-ro could become pedestrian, like Yonsei-ro**. 

Seoul should remember that it put the restoration of its fortress on hold because the UNESCO didn't think that it hadn't been done properly until then... the priority here is to secure the area from speculative alterations.

Joseon Seoul: in today's KJD, more on the restoraion of Donhwamun Royal Road - 20141023
Bonus: it would be nice to avoid the usual touristic fakes. I'm shivering just thinking about yet another embarrassing costumed reenactment. You know, after the changing of the guards at Deoksugung or Gyeongbokgung, something like 'watch the King perform his royal walk along the royal road'?

That's okay if you want to entertain duty-free shoppers on Incheon Airport's Airstar Avenue, but don't you think Changdeokgung and Jongmyo deserve something better?


See also:

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* "Royal road in Seoul will be restored" (Korea JoongAng Daily 2014/10/23)
** see "Yonsei-ro the first street in Seoul to ban cars in its transportation mix"

---UPDATE 20141025---
I added an illustration of the future Gwanghwamun Plaza, which clearly shows the return to a central highway.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cheong Alive, Jeonju Kicking

Last week, we had a fantastic time in a Jeonju blessed with a perfect weather... 

Autumn in Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do - 20141010
... and a perfect alibi for returning to that lovely city: the 2014 Jeonju International Sori Festival (see links below).

Official poster of the 2014 JISF (Oct. 8-12) -
I was specially looking forward to watching 'Cheong Alive', the opening concert:

Cheong Alive (淸 ALIVE), the inaugural concert
I knew that PARK Jechun and Miyeon would give their best, not only for Jeonju and Korea, but also for the country's younger generations and for the future, particularly in the wake of the Sewol tragedy. They delivered such an incredibly powerful creation that we came back the following night to watch it again, this time with 600 Korean kids in the audience.

'Cheong' is the SIM Cheong of Simcheongga, a great pansori classic that had already been adapted and updated in countless ways (some of which quite stimulating, like in "Bitter, Sweet Seoul"). In the story, the daughter of SIM sacrificed herself for her father, but comes back from the depths of the sea to become an Empress.

It took guts to cast only young pansori singers for the opening ceremony of such a prestigious festival, but the young talents were up to the task, and 'Cheong Alive' follows on from a long tradition, without forgetting to honoring pansori greats. Master KIM Cheong-man, the janggu player in that amazing 'Yeourak' Super Session (see "In the zone with Miyeon and Park Je chun"), even chaperons the younger generation during a multisensorial experience that's much more than a concert, an opera, and a musical wrapped in one. Bridging generations and lifting pansori to new territories, Miyeon's music claims you from the first to the last second, and keeps haunting you long afterwards.

'Cheong Alive', an amazing pansori musical for the Sori Festival opening ceremony in Jeonju. Bravo Park Jechun and Miyeon!
20141008 -
Mind you, I also crave for more traditional pansori, and loved KIM Yeon's take at another one of the five surviving great stories of pansori, Heungbuga, where humor plays a much larger role.


But the Sori Festival is not just Korea's best festival for traditional music, and if Songlines lists it among the 25 best in the world, that's also because it is truly international, and proposes very high quality music that don't often reach Korean shores (that's all about heralding cultural diversity, remember?*). I'm sure Jechun loved the incredible percussionists in these Iranian and Armenian groups:

From Iran, Sialk Ensemble - 20141010

Duduk music from Armenia - 20141010

The beauty of having festival venues, cultural assets, and great eateries scattered across the hanok village is that you can always find quiet or busy spots, depending on your mood:
Visitors and characters from all horizons roaming Jeonju hanok village. Sori Festival full throttle - 20101009
Aaah Jeonju... special mention for the doenjang (with the zucchini leaves, bottom left) - #koreanfood - 20141010

Of course, beyond the festival and the hanok maeul, there's a lot to see in Jeonju. 

The Nambu market deserves a triple visit for its outdoor street along Jeonjucheon, its covered section, and its trendier upper floor.

Jeonju Nambu Market - 20141010
On the other side of the river, Dongseohak-dong is evolving into a arty neighborhood full of new cultural hotspots, but like in many other parts of the city, original vintage shop signs are preserved, and sometimes old trades, such as this time-capsulesque cushion puffing place:
One of Korea's few surviving cushion puffing services, in Jeonju - 20141011
We went on to an amazing trip across Southern Korea, but more about that later.

I'm very glad I could enjoy Jeonju with old and new friends, and wish Chip were there as well, to taste the makgeolli we prepared together last July for the festival inauguration:

Preparing makgeolli with friends last July (see "Soriju seems to be the sweetest word")


See all posts related to Jeonju and to the Sori Festival, including:

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* talking about waves and shores, see "Heralding cultural diversity - a stronger and more sustainable Korean wave (Part I)", Part II, Part III

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Happy Seoul

Back to Seoul! Let's celebrate with a new Happy video following Pharrell Williams' footsteps. This one features more walks of life (from monks to expats), more sites (from Bukchon to Mecenatpolis or the Floating Island), and far fewer product placements than a PSY video (no, the tribute to Gangnam Style doesn't count)!

YouTube-wise, this version is quickly catching up with the previous leading version, with 37,000 views since September 30, compared to 56,000 since March 14 for the 'Happy' featuring Hong Seok-cheon:

At that level too, we're not in PSY territory, but it's really great to see Seoul clap along!

#HappySeoul on Facebook:

Because I'm happy to see so many faces and places represented.

I'll add a final clap to a yet older video. Also made in Seoul, also based on music. Not from the megastar Pharrell Williams, but from the Icelandic group Sigur Rós. The title, "VARÚÐ", means "caution", and the video (by Nils Clauss with Namui Park) will move you in different ways. I want you to follow this homeless living in the park behind Yongsan Station until the very end of the credits, because that's also about feeling "like a room without a roof", feeling "like happiness is the truth", knowing "what happiness is to you", feeling "that's what you wanna do":

SIGUR RÓS | VARÚÐ. music video from Nils Clauss on Vimeo.

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