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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Japan: let's wait and (East) see

Japan and Korea have a lot to gain at sharing the same vision of history, developping a relationship based on mutual respect.

And sooner or later, Japan will decide for good or for worse what to do with its own past : face it or erase it. If lately, the trend has definitely been in favor of revisionism (see "Claiming Dokdo as Takeshima equals claiming Seoul as Gyeongseong"), Hatoyama's victory yesterday clearly revives hopes for much sounder relationships between Japan and Korea.

As a cautious but hopeful celebration, I spilled this "white blogule" today :

Land of the rinsing sun ?

As Taro Aso became Prime Minister, he fulfilled a personal ambition to the risk of marring his own name : Japan was bound to face tough times, and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) bound to struggle at the 2009 elections.

Base case scenario then was a 1993 style victory for the Democratic Party of Japan.

Even if a few DPJ leaders have experienced their own turpitudes over the past year, LDP took very much the expected dive. Taro Aso's era and sense of timing could be summed up by one drunken Finance Minister at a G7 summit, and record high unemployment figures published on the eve of elections.

Forget about the base case scenario : Sunday, DPJ claimed over 300 seats out of 480 at the Lower House.

Hopefully, this worst case scenario for the LDP could turn out to be the best case scenario for Japan.

Because Japan badly needs change. Not change as in "political alternation", but change as in "political and societal shift".

Before becoming a controversial Prime Minister, Taro Aso was a controversial Foreign Minister, pushing all the (extreme) right buttons to please imperialist dieharders, infuriating Chinese and Korean neighbors*, and even dispising Hiromu Nonaka, a LDP rival, for being "burakumin", a person coming from a minority. Nevermind the fact that Korean blood runs through the body of the Emperor himself.

Taro's successor Yukio Hatoyama defends burakus and Japanese of Korean origin. He fights against discrimination at home and for reconciliation with neighbors. He leads a movement in favor of stronger ties between Korea and Japan, and has a vision for both countries as natural partners in the region.

Behind this 62 year-old leader, DPJ sent to the Diet an impressive roster of young people, many of whom women, kicking out of the political landscape a collection of dinosaurs who'd be running for decades a country glued in keiretsu conservatism and bureaucracy.

These elections could mean the end of Post-War Japan and the beginning of something new. Now would be the perfect time to - at last** ! - set the record straight about what happened during and before the said war, and to get rid of the only minority that tarnishes its greatness : a dangerous clique of nostalgist and revisionist fascists.

Japan has a unique opportunity to embrace the new millenium as a great nation at peace with its neighbors, its own past, and its own citizens.

blogules 2009 (also in French : "Le Pays du Soleil Lavant ?")

* see "Taro Aso after Tzipi Livni and before... ?"
** see too many previous
blogules about Japan, and why unrepentant Japan shouldn't be allowed to seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Donguibogam listed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register

In 1596, King Seonjo ordered his physician Heo Jun to oversee the compilation of every piece of information related to medicinal herbs with a focus on Korea because the country relied only on Chinese references which mentioned plants often unavailable in the peninsula. The 25 volumes of Donguibogam (동의보감 or Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine) were published in 1613, five years after Seonjo's death.

Today July 31st, 2009, almost four centuries later, and one year after its submission, the book kept in The National Library of Korea and The Academy of Korean Studies has been awarded inscription to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.

Beyond its sometimes weird bits of traditional medicine wisdom, Dongui Bogam has been praised for its modern vision (see "Donguibogam: Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine" on UNESCO portal) : "In terms of health care system, it developed the ideals of preventive medicine and public health care by the state, which was virtually an unprecedented idea up to the 19th century". Considering today's heated debate about health care in the US, one could even push that up to the 21th century...

Initiated in 1992, the UNESCO Memory of the World Program aims for preservation, documentation, and awareness of key documents. Donguibogam is Korea's 7th entry to a list of about 190 representing more than 80 countries. That's a lot, particularly when you compared with France (5), the UK (2), or the US (1).

But these figures tell more about each country's efficiency in submissions than about the size of their respective treasures. UK's Magna Carta joined the crowd only this year (submitted last year). It also seems to be a matter of what priorities are on each submitter's minds : USA is not represented by its Constitution but by a movie. Citizen Kane ? No : The Wizard of Oz. Go figure...

Korea's special role also appears in the UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize, named after what is undoubtedly one of the World's most important documents in history : Jikji, the first metal type printed book (1377, Guthenberg's 42-line Bible came much later, in 1455). Every other year since 2005 (year of Jikji's induction to the UNESCO list), the UNESCO Jikji Prize is awarded, along with USD 30,000, to "individuals or institutions that have made significant contributions to the preservation and accessibility of documentary heritage". First laureate : the National Library of the Czech Republic.

Note that the UNESCO/Jikji prize was created one year before the 120th anniversary of French-Korean diplomatic relationships, putting a gentle pressure on France for giving the only extant part of the book back to Korea, or at least making it more accessible to the public. The Baegun hwasang chorok buljo jikji simche yojeol volume II, or second volume of "Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests' Zen Teachings", is kept in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. La BNF also holds part of Uigwe, but the bulk of the Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty remains in Korea's Royal Libraries (Kyujanggak, Jangseogak). If you've ever been to Korea, you've probably already come across visual elements of Uigwe : many museographies and all costumed revivals of royal ceremonies tap into that ultimate blueprint.

So now you know at least 4 of the 7 Korean documents listed by the UNESCO :
- Donguibogam (listed in 2009)

- Jikji (listed in 2001 - the same year as Guthemberg's bible)
- Uigwe (listed in 2007), and 
- Tripitaka Koreana (listed in 2007) : we mentioned that great marvel last year in our focus on "Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panja".

Another essential document is Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음 - listed in 1997, now in Gansong Art Museum), the code that set the Korean alphabet in 1446. Nowadays, bits of that fundamental text are used to decorate the fence protecting, on Gwanghwamun Square, the site where King Sejong's statue and information center will be erected. Does the name ring a bell ? We recently mentioned the Hunminjeongeum Society, a private initiative trying to promote hangul overseas (see "Hangeul lands in Bau-Bau, Indonesia... to save the Cia !").

If you intend to read the other two Korean entries in the register, take a big breath and make plans for a borgesian-size library :

Joseonwangjosillok (조선왕조실록 or Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), listed in 1997 and preserved at Jeongjoksan Archive / Jeongjoksan Sagobon in Seoul, cover 472 years (1392-1863) in 1,893 books.

- Seungjeongwon Ilgi (승정원일기, or Diaries of the Royal Secretariat), listed in 2001 and kept at Kyujanggak and Seoul National University, deliver more crispy state secrets and many volumes have been lost for good, but that's still a collection of 3,243 diaries stretching over 288 years (1623-1910). Those diaries shouldn't threaten Bridget Jones' days on top of the bestseller list.

Korea does have a knack for written arts, and a long tradition of great respect for scholars over warriors. Still today, I'm sure there's something in the air (beyond the smog, that is). A good place to live if you love books.

SM 20090731 updated 0826

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

We don't need no education. Do we ?

In Korea, cities are merging*, and schools too.

500 small rural schools will be closed by 2012. That's more than one third of all schools outside of Seoul. Every establishment responsible for fewer than 60 kids.

Of course, you can't beat demographics. Even with the significant contribution of foreign spouses in the countryside, South Korea keeps breaking all negative records of birth rates.

But what should be a natural but long process has obviously be hastened by the government for budgetary reasons. So 500 villages will miss the lively song of pupils learning just hectometers away from home.

After this small but traumatic death, many shall keep bitter "memories of murder".

* see "Seongnam and Hanam merge"

Naro-1 took off

Last week, on August 19th, Naro-1 remained on its pad as the countdown was stopped 7'56 before ignition.

Today, the 33 m high rocket also known as KSLV-1 (Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1) left Naro Space Center at 5 pm.

Russia provided key technology, know how, and assistance on the way to success, and the first totally indigenous rocket is only planned for 2018, but that's a giant leap nonetheless.

This also puts Naro-do, Goheung-gun, Jeollanam-do, on the map. I remember passing by last year, with all the billboards advertising the space capital of Korea in the middle of a remote and green area.

KSLV website :
Goheung-gun website :

UPDATE 20090825

Naro-ho eventually failed to stabilize in the right orbit... more fish to fry for Naro-do sky team...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Clean Air @ Seoul

Well. For a start, "clean air" is the name of the website displaying all data on air quality in Seoul :

How is the capital city doing this morning ? Since rain just cleaned the air, at 9 o'clock and on a scale of 1 (good) to 6 (terrible), Seoul stood at "2" except for Nowon-gu (at "1" - thanks to the mountains), and two gus at "3" (Seodaemun-gu and Yeongdeungpo-gu). Eunpyeong-gu was awarded a "0" for lack of data. Temperature was 24.5, humidity 60%, wind speed .4 m/s, and my personal "maemimeter" indicated 4 (cicadas were rather quiet this morning).

But scales can tell any tale and be easily manipulated. This website also delivers detailed results for certain elements, and here was the composition of our breakfast :
. Nitrogen Dioxide (NOx - NO, NO2) : 0.046 ppm (0.030 in Nowon - 0.066 in Yeongdeungpo)
. Ozone (O3) : 0.005 ppm (0.003 in Seodaemun, Mapo and Yeongdeungpo - 0.021 in Gwanak)
. Carbon Monoxide (CO) : 1.1 ppm (I wonder how Seoul can reach that average : the max is 0.9 and the minimum 0.5 - in Gangbuk and Yangcheon)
. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) : 0.005 ppm (0.001 in Dobong - 0.011 in Geumcheon and Yangcheon)
. Particulate Matter (PM) : 37 μg / m³ (18 in Nowon - 45 in Yangcheon)


Good start, knowing that this kind of tools can always be improved : lead levels are missing, and should be added (even if not on a daily basis) to get a fairer picture of the quality of ambient air... and to put more pressure in favor of change. Giving the mix of Particulate Matter (under 2.5 μm and bewteen 2.5 and 10 μm) could prove also useful.

Raising the level of transparency and public awareness is essential to continue the effort in favor of a really cleaner air. Considerable improvements have been made over the past decade, but much remains to be done.

The gu level gives some indications, but at the micro level, the differences can be much more spectacular : some streets are irrespirable, and too many people live and work in locals saturated with carcigens. Construction material norms have improved, but too new pollutants keep being added to the mix without much monitoring from authorities.

I'm also worried about radio pollution. I'm shocked to see 2G, 3G or WiBro antennas installed carelessly by home windows or even at street level without any security perimeter whatsoever. It's not only very dangerous but strictly forbidden in many countries. It's not a matter of if but when : change must and will come.

Empowering citizens is a sound way of preparing the future : now any Seoulite can measure the effects of weather condition or environment policies, benchmark his city with other countries. In Europe, there's even a website ( to facilitate direct comparisons.

So Seoul City took a good measure, and it would be interesting to do the same for neighboring cities, the way Paris Ile de France region did with : pollution doesn't just come and go, we are all connected. I was surprised to learn that a major forest near Paris was more polluted than the city center because its landscape trapped pollutants more effectively.

Seoul Village 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Seongnam and Hanam merge

The cities of Seongnam and Hanam (both in Gyeonggi-do) announced their intention to merge by 2014 in a new city which would border Southeast Seoul from Gangdong-gu to Gangnam-gu via Songpa-gu.

In such mergers, more ambitious and harmonious policies can be developped, and the new ensemble can forge a stronger identity, be more competitive at the national and international level. But the union has to be carefully and soundly planned, and it is essential to preserve the soul of each area of the newly formed city. Spotting and reviving key cultural assets should even be considered an essential mission. So I would strongly advise planners to make a lot of research back in time before starting anything irreversible. This is clearly a promise for the future and a new start, but certainly not from scratch, from a blank page.

And I hope this won't end up in more destruction of Seoul's vital greenbelts.


A referendum involving Seongnam and Hanam citizens shall be held, but the final decision remain in the hands of the national government... which shouldn't oppose the move : LEE Myung-bak wants to regroup 246 administrative areas into 60 to 70 municipalities, a natural trend that Japan has been experiencing for years, and that Nicolas Sarkozy is also considering for Paris' "little belt".

Among other regroupments under discussion within Gyeonggi-do : Guri with Namyangju (an obvious team just booming, just North of Seongnam-Hanam, on the other side of the Han river), and Hwaseong with Suwon (a powerful economic - cultural combo south, which could counterbalance the impressive rise of nearby Incheon).

I don't see small and unpopulated cities like Gwacheon (35.9 km2 / 74,600 inh.) or Uiwang (53 / 142,000) remain much longer on their own : a merger with Anyang (58 / 618,000) could be a solution. Gimpo seems big enough, but not so dense (276.6 km2 / 203,000), but many areas are either booming or about to (ie near Incheon's Cheongna, Ganghwa-do). Bucheon or Gwangmyeong are populated (850,000 and 341,000) but small (53.4 and 38.5 km2). For this pair, joining forces with Siheung (441,000 / 131) and why not even Ansan (Southwards) would make sense... Combinations are countless.


Seongnam-Hanam project started as an even more ambitious project : Gwangju (the Gyeonggi-do city not to be confused with South West Korea's metro city) was initally in the loop and eventually declined to join Seongnam and Hanam, which would have created a major and relevant powerhouse :

- Today, Seongnam claims 141.8 square kilometers and 1,023,000 inhabitants (including people about to move in Pangyo New Town). Hanam 93 and 128,000. The 235 km2 and 1,13 million inhabitants ensemble will claim the "Metropolitan City" status and can even beat Suwon (121 km2, 1,087,000 inhabitants) as Gyeonggi-do's most populated city, but Gwangju would add 431 km2 and 215,000 inhabitants, forming a 3-city bigger than Seoul itself (605 km2 - but over 10 M souls).

- From a geographical point of view, Seongnam-Hanam looks a bit crooked : only a tiny kilometer of common border (at Hanam's Hakam-dong) unites two otherwise distant blocks and furthermore, a mountain (Namhansan) prevents both urban centers from actually connecting. Gwangju is the obvious missing piece that would complete a puzzle as harmoniously* shaped as the capital Seoul.

- Precisely, Gwangju used to be a capital, and the 3-city-merger would have made perfect sense at the historical level. The young city of Hanam (established on January 1st, 1989) owes its name to the former capital of Baekjae Kingdom, and used to belong to Gwangju-gun. Besides, the Gwangju corner that fills the puzzle, the fortress of Namhansanseong, would be the trio's perfect pivotal landmark.

Joining the duo later may prove more difficult...


This administrative measure will necessarily have more or less telluric effects. Typically, the old core of Seongnam city, sidelined by Bundang and Pangyo, appears now central and is very much likely to experience some kind of revival.

Today, Seongnam-Hanam looks as unbalanced as Incheon, with very various landscapes, from the Southwestern New Towns to the Northeastern nature (Hangang, Geomdansan). And each block is disfigured by a major highway hub : Pangyo InterChange (Highway 1 to Busan / Circular 100) for Seongnam, Hanam Junction for Hanam (100 with Highway 35 to Daejeon).

Bundang lost some of its luster but remains a success story. Yet competition is raging with cities further south. Cities which don't have as many natural obstacles to development.

I'm sure city planners are full of ideas. But I hope destroying Namhansan is not one of them. Seoul green belts are definitely in real danger these days.

Seoul Village 2009

* from a distance at least, because each city lies in a different valley and connecting the centers would somehow mean replacing mountains with concrete.

Seoul Fringe Festival

Indy Seoul generally meets at Hongdae. Less "theatrical" than Daehangno, less "cute" than Idae, this university area is less prone to follow trends than to shape them. Students like to design their own look from head to toes, without going too far : it shouldn't appear too staged.

Some do their own art, some their own music, and sometimes that music can become art.

That's where the Seoul Fringe Festival steps in. For its 12th edition, it decided to extend pervasively with the complicity of performers, and I would say this BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue) concept refreshes parts other festivals cannot reach.

Any material can be recycled, and the party will mix with
Seoul Open Night on Saturday the 22nd.

Seoul Fringe Festival 2009
From August 13th to 29th
Telephone: +82.02.325.8150
website: (full program and map of events)

Seoul Village 2009

Seoul Open Night

Imagine Paris experiencing at the same time its Nuit Blanche, Paris Plage, and the Fête de la Musique. That would be Seoul this Saturday, August 22nd :

- "Seoul Plage" (1st edition) is a private and rather feeble attempt to copy the Parisian event (itself a copy of a concept created by the city of Saint Quentin) on one segment of Hangang riverside. So let's forget about it.

- The "Fête de la Musique" would be the Seoul Fringe Festival (12th edition, until August 29th). I'll get back to that later.

- And the equivalent to "Nuit Blanche" is "Seoul Open Night". The said "night" doesn't stretch as far as it does in Paris but it starts at 2 pm and, for the second edition, its limits have been pushed from 10 pm to midnight, which makes the label much more relevant... The concept is basically the same : the city opens its museums and galleries during one special night when many cultural events take place, casting a new light on an art capital.

To go from one Seoul Open Night spot to another, I won't be riding a Seoul Velib', but my own Korean bike.

Seoul Open Night will last from 2 pm to 12 pm on Saturday the 22nd, 2009 across 6 locations, but the program may change due to yesterday's tragic news : following
Kim Dae-jung's death, the general mood is not set on partying mode...

Here are a few of the many events initially planned * :

- Seoul Plaza : free "opening" ceremony between 7 and 8 pm featuring Major OH Se-hoon and singer LEE Seung-hwan. I guess that would be the place to pay a formal tribute to DJ (I'm not talking about the Disk Jockey).

- Hongdae : Seoul Open Night will spice up the Seoul Fringe Festival, a free market will be held at the usual spot (Hongdae Playground) between 7 and 12 pm, street performances, indie concerts... A KRW 10,000 Unlimited Cultural Pass includes entrance to 12 live clubs and theaters.

- Daehangno : the usual hotspots, and a free concert at Marronnier Park (8 to 9 pm).

- Jeong-dong : various events around the Deoksugung (concert) and along Deoksugung-gil (including meetings with Nanta performers). All key museums and parks will be opened until midnight.

- Bukchon : most galleries open until midnight free of charge (there's a 10,000 Cultural Pass including admission to 12 paid museums and galleries in the area). At Jaedong Elementary School crossroad, a Bukchon Traditional Street Performance and Food Feast will be held between 7 and 11 pm.

- Insa-dong : most galleries open until midnight free of charge, many performances are held, and Ssamziegil visitors can enjoy a free traditional craftwork training.

Not all events are free, and some even require bookings (ie architectural tours highlighting key city landmarks). So check the program of
Seoul Open Night on Seoul city website or directly on the SON website (

Seoul Village 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kim Dae-jung - The Commander Statue

Tragic year for former Korean Presidents : today, pneumonia eventually claimed KIM Dae-jung (1998-2003) a few months after his successor ROH Moo-hyun (2003-2008) committed suicide*.

Korea's first Nobel laureate had been treated for over one month at the Severance Hospital, and when his fate seemed sealed, all former foes paid him a visit to "make peace" with a man whose disparition was bound to spark a new wave of criticisms on their own past.

Most notable stars of this strange "Sunshine Policy", 3 presidents : CHUN Doo-hwan has already been judged, KIM Young-sam still struggles to balance his own legacy, but LEE Myung-bak is about present time, history in the making.

And KIM Dae-jung was particularly vocal against him. Actually, his very last public breaths were to denounce repeated attacks on democracy, particularly following the disparition of ROH Moo-hyun (see "
A Yellow Sea for Roh Moo-hyun").

At least for the weeks to come, KIM Dae-jung shall stand as an embarrassing "Commander Statue" for a Don Juan already struggling to reconquer public opinion.

* See "
Roh Moo-hyun follows Pierre Beregovoy".

ADDENDUM 20090819

Kim Dae-jung family designated Kim Young-sam as head of the organization for the tribute to the deceased. Now that's Sunshine Policy !!!

Bike Friendly Subway Trains and Stations

Until now, only foldable bikes are allowed on subway trains in Seoul, and no bike at all during rush hours.

A few months ago, special subway wagons were announced : bicycle owners would be able to carry their vehicles on certain lines. Some seats would be removed to install bike racks in the first and last wagons of each train.

Starting this October, bikes will officially be allowed in subways on sundays and holidays, and Seoul will start testing bike friendly stations until March 2010 (see "
Bike riders to travel by subway" - JoongAng Ilbo 20090818).

Asia News Agency released two interesting pictures (see "
10월부터 자전거 끌고 지하철 탄다") :
- a man pushing his bike along a dedicated slope at Seokgye Station on line 6 : the slope has a thin gutter to maintain the tires in the right direction, and the carrier about 50 cm of staircase separated from the crowd by a big metal banister. it's better than carrying your bike on your shoulder but you can see him struggling... and certain stations have daunting staircases. expect many cheaters to be fined for using the elevators.
- a 3D rendering of a wagon equipped with bike racks : there's room for two bikes on each side, to lean on a simple metal structure where people can also store some luggage. not optimal but that's a start.

The Chosun Ilbo (see "10월부터 지하철에 '자전거 전용칸'") released this video of a man using the same slope, and an automated bike parking / storage service :

Here are the 38 stations selected for the trial (with the main subway line for each - many are connections) :
- Line 1 (3) : City Hall, Jongno 3-ga, Dongdaemun
- Line 2 (7) : Euljiro 1-ga, Hanyang University, Konkuk University, Seongnae, Sincheon, Seoul National University of Education, Dangsan
- Line 3 (5) : Gupabal, Oksu, Apkujeong, Maebong, Suseo
- Line 4 (5) : Nowon, Gileum, Hansung University, Dongjak, Sadang
- Line 5 (5) : Omokgyo, Yeouido, Gwanghwamun (
with its new slope !), Gwangnaru, Olympic Park
- Line 6 (5) : Saejeol, World Cup Stadium, Korea University, Seokgye, Hwarangdae
- Line 7 (5) : Nowon, Junghwa, Ttukseom Resort, Naebang, Onsu
- Line 8 (3) : Mongcheontoseong, Seokchon, Songpa

Many universities and riverside bike hubs (Ttukseom, Yeouido...). And enough to study the complete bicycle... cycle.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Gocheok-dong baseball stadium will be domed

In the focus on future Dongdaemun Design Plaza, I mentioned the destination for the replacement of the old baseball stadium : Gocheok-dong in Guro-gu.

Seoul just announced that it eventually will seat 22,000 under a dome covering all the stadium, thus delaying the delivery from September 2010 to September 2011 (see "
Korea to Get First Domed Ballpark" - Chosun Ilbo 20090814). A 2 mn promotional video can be viewed on Guro TV (

Not a giant by all standards, but an interesting infrastructure for indoor entertainment in a rather forsaken "gu", and a major landmark between two outdoor entertainment areas, Anyangcheon and Hangang riversides (ferry connections announced by 2012).


Baekundongcheon / Gwanghwamun-gil - A River Runs Through It

Gwanghwamun-gil is the small diagonal street between exits 7 and 4 of Gwanghwamun Station*. This traditionally messy area full of snacks**, restaurants, small shops, and office clerks flocking from Gwanghwamun Station to their towers, is evolving very quickly : buildings under renovation or destruction, old eateries giving way to modern franchises and new restaurants... another consequence of the Gwanghwamun revival.

Gwanghwamun-gil's unusual angle betrays an old age and indeed, on all ancient city maps, it literally jumps at your face as the beginning of the biggest road West of the Gyeongbok palace.

If you take a map of today's Seoul, you can easily retrace its path : you only have to remove Sejong Cultural Center, which was constructed over 30 years ago, to see the diagonal continue Northeastwards all the way to Inwangsan's old fortress.

The Northern section of the old road (about 1.7 km between Gyeongbokgung Station and Jahamun Tunnel / Buam-dong) is still clearly visible : that's Jahamun-gil, Seochon's main vertical road.

Back to the Southern, 800 m long "Gwanghwamun" section now : between Sejong Cultural Center and Jahamun-gil, the street splits into twin alleys named after local dongs (Dohyeon-dong-gil and Naesu-dong-gil) until it meets with Naejadong-gil. It then becomes a narrow path surrounded by office buildings, and reaches Sajikno between Gyeongbokgung Station exits 6 and 7.

This diagonal looks quite thin nowadays compared to the horizontal lines of Sajikno or even Naejadong-gil, but these two roads were considerably smaller before the opening of Sajik Tunnel (the first tunnel ever built in Seoul was inaugurated on May 30th, 1967). Of great historical significance, the link between Gyeongbokgung and Sajik-dan stopped at the shrine : a founding street for the future capital city, but not exactly today's six lanes of traffic.

Why was this diagonal so important then ? The biggest axis West of Sejongno simply follows Baekundongcheon (백운동천), the stream that becomes Cheonggyecheon when it meets Junghakcheon (중학천), exactly under today's Cheonggyecheon Square.

More vertical, Junghakcheon flows down from Bugaksan, through Samcheong-dong, following the Eaestern walls of Gyeongbokgung. This stream left its name to Junghakcheon-gil, the street behind US Embassy, KTF and Kyobo buildings, parallel to Sejongno.

Now let's take a 1946 map : Junghakcheon is still totally uncovered, but Baekundongcheon already hidden on its Southern section. Yet, the map shows 9 torrents joining it from Inwangsan :
- 3 at its root in Singyo-dong,
- 3 at Ogin-dong (still visible as Ogin-gil and other oblique Seochon streets),
- 2 from Sajik-dong (the street that is now between Space Bon and the KFA Building corresponds more or less to Sajikdongcheon or 사직동천, and when I walk there on a rainy day, I can this cub roar under my feet)
- plus the small one coming from Gyeonghuigung, Gyeonghuigungnaesucheon (경희궁내수천). A bridge has symbolically been rebuilt in front of the Seoul Museum of History.

All the waterway names have disappeared, but they sometimes pop up in ancient literature : Okryudongcheon (옥류동천), Daeunamcheon (대은암천), Malliroe rapids (만리뢰)... They might reemerge someday, just like the restoration of Cheonggyecheon marked the revival of ancient bridges.

Because if both affluents are totally covered now, they may see the light again, like Cheonggyecheon itself. Seoul City already plans to reopen Junghakcheon, and Baekundongcheon should come next. Unfortunately, the first thing they will see is 'Spring' : the most regrettable 20 meter-tall seashell / DNA structure erected by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg... part of Cheonggyecheon Restoration's collateral damage.

Imagine downtown after the restoration of its main streams and Seochon's revival... I hope it will be made with taste and consideration for yesterday's as well as tomorrow's Seoul : Seochon should remain alive, not turn into another Bukchon-style open air museum.

Seoul Village 2009

* from Sejongno Sageori to Sejong Cultural Center crossroads, where Sejongmunha-gil (perpendicular to Gwanghwamun Square) cuts Sejonggwandeuit-gil (which becomes Hyojaro to the North, the road to Cheonghwadae following Gyeongbokgung walls).
** including Gwanghwamun Jip, the best kimchi jjigae in town and Seoul's other Blue House. The main Blue House, of course, being a little bit up North, in the heart of Seochon : the very cute bookstore Daehoseojeom. Yet, I also heard of a third Blue House, a certain Cheongwadae, even further Northwards...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hoehyeon-dong overpass passed away

Another overpass is being removed in Seoul. As scheduled, the Hoehyeon Sagori concrete structure will disappear, liberating the view on Namsan Tower from the North.

This crossroads is often saturated : it cuts Toegyero at the exit of Namsan's 3rd Tunnel towards City Hall, right in front of Shinsegae, between Myeongdong and Namdaemun market.

The area is getting more residential, with 3 housing complexes nearing delivery : a SK Leaders View opposite the Department Store, a Lotte Castle behind Woori Bank building, and a Ssangyong Platinum next to LG CNS (Ssangyong is also growing an office building on the other side of that tower).

I won't say I'll miss the old Hoehyeon-dong, except for that quiet place guarded by a gigantic gingko tree. The crossroad area may become human friendlier, provided pedestrians are offered better and safer paths above ground. Under it, there's always that old shopping area if you're into corny paintings, vintage LPs, or stamp collections.

Without this overpass, more people may notice the proximity with the mountain in an otherwise green-free area. To make the invitation even more obvious, a small funicular was opened a few months ago, connecting the street with Namsan cable cars, higher on the hill.

I'm afraid it will take bigger investments in public transportation to compensate for the overpass and the flocks of new residents.

I think it would make sense to establish future connections with Yongsan-gu, particularly towards poorly served but soon to be redevelopped Huam-dong.

Maemi Serenade

The tenor took position on my window's mosquito net. Moments later, the maemistro started its strident recital.

I only had time to clumsily turn my mobile phone's camera on, and I would be all thumbs with this device if the expression hadn't that positive meaning nowadays... so this video appears on the wrong direction.

I found a way of rotating it perfectly, but then the sound disappeared*. OK, it was poorly reproduced, but it gives you an idea of what filled the room. So here's my lousy bootleg video of that maemi serenade :

The artist left without waiting for a well deserved round of applause. Maybe he was a relative of the cicada I saved two summers ago (see "
Save Korean maemis").

SM 200908

* if you happen to know how to rotate a .mp4 video AND preserve the sound, I'm all ears...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gwanghwamun Plaza - The Aftermath

Following last year's presentation ("Gwanghwamun Square") and last month's sneak peek ("Gwanghwamun Square - Preview"), a few more comments on Seoul's new landmark as a neighbor and frequent user :

As expected, Gwanghwamun Plaza "reinstates downtown's traditional center and shorten distances between major cultural places. Passers-by will again own the heart of the city, and enjoy a better view on its most prestigious and beautiful perspective". Thanks to new crosswalks, tourists can seamlessly walk between all major monuments, and Gyeongbokgung doesn't look anymore like an island lost in a see of cars. Instead of taking a taxi to hop from one spot to another, many may plan day-long walks from say Deoksugung to Samcheong-dong via Cheonggyecheon. Even Seoulites are already changing habits : instead of sitting at a cafe or sweating in a health club, they pick up a drink and take a long walk before work or at lunch break. Soon, they will discover the pleasure of riding a bike across Seoul's historical center.

- Once again, this a giant leap, but not the last step. Many other changes are under way both sides of Sejongno : from hardware (ie many construction sites in Shinmunro, Susong-dong, or Cheongjin-dong) to software (ie places like KT Art Hall or Kyobo Bookstore are getting too crowded, new cultural spaces will necessarily multiply in the vicinity). The atmosphere is changing really quickly West of the boulevard : Sejong Cultural Center area is swarming with people most of the time, its food alleys remain lively on week-ends (neither food nor drink for sale on the square), and further afield, Shinmunro confirms its spectacular revival. The Prada Transformer operation had already put Gyeonghuigung back on the map for younger generations, and the small square in front of Seoul Museum of History attracted very diverse crowds. Now the museum itself decides to draw new visitors : yesterday it inaugurated a giant map of Seoul (scale 1:1,500 - over 70,000 buildings represented), and unlike model house phantasm replicas most Seoulites are used to, you don't see gigantic Amazonian forests nor totemic subway stations popping up from nowhere. Of course, don't look for detailed compounds around Cheongwadae or Yongsan Army Base...

- As pointed out earlier, the square itself cruelly lacks natural shade. It was a deliberate choice for security reasons : like Seoul Plaza, the area might be used as a demonstration spot, but this time right in front of the Government's headquarters. On the other hand, no more gingko trees means that you can enjoy the panorama on the mountain from any point. But this flat area will be as chilly in winter as it is mercilessly hot in summer. More than the embarrassing sea of flowers covering the Northern section of Gwanghwamun Plaza, waterworks do provide some welcomed refreshment, and flower pot benches do grow a few useful metallic umbrellas... but under a scorching sun, it's safer to bring your own shade.

The slope leading to Gwanghwamun Station confirms its essential role, but Haechi Madang proves to be rather a disapointment (I won't even comment on the new Haechi "cute" character revealed during the inauguration - you will prefer the photo exhibition at the other end of the plaza). I think it would be wiser to install doors, as discrete as possible not to ruin the overall architecture, to mark the transition between the subway and the square, improve the exhibition experience, and save energy / air conditioning in all seasons.

- The most upsetting experience remains the closeness of cars, particularly at night. I was scared to see kids running in the fake streams on each side of the square : they can slip anytime or simply be hit by a rearview mirror, the only protection being the 10-20 cm high and 20-30 cm wide border of the streamlets. The authorities quickly dispatched one cop every 100 m or so to limit the risks but just two days after the inauguration, an overspeeding taxi trying to avoid a collision entered the plaza and landed in the dead middle of the flower beds. Luckily enough the place was empty at that time of the day, so a real tragedy was avoided (except for the gardener). The "longer term quick fix plan" is to add flower blocks on each side. Likewise, I wouldn't be surprised to see new fences prevent people from falling into the descent...

- ...

Anywhere else, this kind of risks would have been carefully taken into account... but that's the surprising way major projects are usually carried out here. And somehow, it fits a city that never ceases to evolve, do, undo, and redo. Seoul is alive and kicking, and Gwanghwamun Square will breathe, grow new features*, catch a cold, develop new cures, adapt and improve.

The first thing that struck me for Cheonggyecheon was the narrowness of sidewalks : the place really seemed to ban couples or wheelchairs ! But since it was not life threatening, it took three and a half years to consider enlarging the sidewalks. Now it's done, and not only around the former mayor's masterpiece. This administration seems to have a better grasp on the details that change everyday life.

But it's not only about what Seoul can do for you, folks. This vast Gwanghwamun Square is what Seoul citizens will make of it.

* and don't count out
King Sejong, still getting ready for October

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hangeul lands in Bau-Bau, Indonesia... to save the Cia !

According to The HunminJeongeum Society (HunminJeongeum Research Institute), representatives from Bau-Bau decided to use the Korean alphabet in order to preserve their own language, a dialect that lacked a writing system.

Created in 1443, Hangeul is often praised by linguists as the most efficient alphabet ever invented and indeed, it takes only a few minutes to understand how it works. Still, Hangeul needed some help to reach Bau-Bau, the most populated town (120,000 inhabitants) of Buton island, at the Southwesternmost point of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The HunminJeongeum institute has been trying to export Hangeul for years. The easiest and most obvious entry points are non written languages with a limited reach and on the verge of extinction : a writing system means an easier conservation, transmission, and of course a global reach via the internet.

Last year, the vice president of the association (headed by Seoul National University Professor Kim Ju-won), Chun Tai-hyun, Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, announced in a Korean Times interview* that representatives from Bau-Bau would visit Korea to learn Hangeul and find out how to implement it. "In Indonesia, ethnic minority communities are losing their own spoken languages. We realized that the Korean alphabet could actually help preserve these endangered local languages."

The said trip bore interesting fruits : a comprehensive textbook in Hangeul created by the Institute and titled "bahasa jjia-jjia 1", and a Korean center soon to be opened (see Yonhap article*).

I found this information both exciting and surprising : If it were say in Thailand, where the national language uses a specific writing system, I would understand the trial... but Bahasa Indonesia itself, the Indonesian language, has adopted the Latin alphabet about one century ago. Indonesian is spoken everywhere, even if many dialects survive, and Latin alphabet already offers a potentially global reach. Choosing an alphabet is a founding moment, and picking a different alphabet almost has to have a political meaning...

I did some quick research :

- on the island's official website (, there's nothing about the issue yet : all pages seem written in perfect Bahasa Indonesia... as much as I can tell (I haven't practiced the very little I know for 20 years !).

- on the always fascinating
UNESCO Atlas of endangered languages, I found only Busoa ("vulnerable") and Taloki ("definitely endangered") in the area. If Indonesia boasts about 130 endangered languages, this very one is not on the list.

- on the "
Ethnologue report for Sulawesi, Indonesia", I found the language mentioned on the manual : in 2005, 79,000 people spoke Cia-cia language (or simply cia, which means "no") across this part of Sulawesi, but with many variant dialects. The language is said to be "vigorous" and spoken at "all ages", along with Indonesian and the dominant Austranesian language of Buton island, wlo (or wolio).

- I couldn't dig any clue in the political / social context that may cast a particular light on such a bold move from local representatives.

So my guess is that in this more "push" than "pull" operation, the survival of cia-cia language was not as essential as the opportunity to see how Hangeul performs in a completely new context. Professor Kim Ju-won is even more specific : "In the long run, the spread of Hangeul will also help enhance Korea's economy as it will activate exchanges with societies that use the language."*

I understand that this kind of arguments help raise funds for research, but I sincerely hope that linguistics remain the main topic, and that someone is planning to closely monitor the impacts. For example, I'm anxious to see if there is any impact on pronunciation.

If this thrilling (in all senses of the expression) experiment turns out to be a success, other local languages may be tempted to adopt Hangeul... if they simply don't catch the virus by contagion.

To be followed up...

* "
Linguistics Scholar Seeks to Globalize Korean Alphabet" (Korea Times)
** featuring "writing, speaking and reading sections", "the tribe's history, language and culture" (definitely a must), and as a bonus "a Korean fairy tale" - see "
Indonesian tribe picks Korean alphabet as official writing system" (Yonhap 20090806)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Incheon Women Artists' Biennale

"So Close Yet So Far Away", the thema for IWA Biennale's second edition*, could sum up your experience as a visitor of an event stretched all over Incheon's Jung-gu : you can enjoy at the same time the encounter with 297 very different women artists from 41 very different countries, and the visit of a city center under complete cultural revival.

Special mention to the heart of IWAB : Incheon Art Platform, a new exhibition complex giving a second life to old warehouses, each building serving potentially as a residence for a group of artists. IAP brilliantly fills a cultural gap, both in space and time, at the feet of the hill leading to Freedom Park through old foreign concessions.

All three exhibitions have one foot in the Incheon Art Platform :
- the rest of "main exhibition" is hosted by Incheon Korean-Chinese Cultural Center, a much kitscher building at the end of this new art village's main street.
- "Participation" ("Alone Together" - 93 Korean artists) put its other foot in the Incheon Educational and Cultural Center for Students...
- ... where "Tunig" ("The 21st Century, The Feminine Century, and the Century of Diversity and Hope" - 86 international artists, both male and female) only sets one toe, the rest being scattered across various buildings and hotels.

I particularly liked Faith Ringgold's "Tar Beach 2" (1990), Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's videos of villagers reacting to XIXth century master paintings, and the touching tribute of Imhathai Suwatthanasilp to her father. The last two come from Thailand, as does Sutthirat Supaparinya, co-curator (along with Thalia Vrachopoulos) of the exhibition. The Biennale Organising Committee is chaired by Kwon Kyung-ae.

I saw visitors from all generations, but visited on a rather quiet Tuesday, and a hot summer afternoon. So I cannot tell if the Biennale is a popular success. But considering their limited budget (compared to Gwangju Biennale, for instance), organizers did a fantastic job. Furthermore, beyond the artists and their works, and beyond the Incheon Art Platform, Incheon Women Artists' Biennale is a very interesting way of rediscovering Incheon, its streets and architecture, its past and future, its relation to modernity and the world.

I'll definitely be back for the next edition.

* the second edition as the World's first international women artists' biennale after 2007 (thema: "Knocking On The Door"), but the fourth including 2004 ("Incheon Women Artists" meaning artists from Incheon area) and 2006 (Pre-International Women Artists' Biennale).

2009 Incheon Women Artists' Biennale
August 1 to 31, 2009 (Preview July 30-31)
Tel : +82.32.772.7727

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