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Monday, September 28, 2009

dragedies and Seoul crumbs

My "dragédies" are now available on*.

What is a "dragedy" ?

You may have heard about "dragees", sweets you offer to somehow exorcise festive events - generally a wedding or a birth... dragedies basically and nonsensically announce death, which means they can be sweet and sour, sad and funny (my definition of humor being the ability to accept death in general and one's weaknesses in particular, in order to make life in general more acceptable, and one's existence in particular more bearable to others).

This excuse for a book proposes a handful of dragedies, and some definitions, along with a few Seoul crumbs which somehow fell into my lap or lens.

Worms in the city, books in the sky, trouble in the company... these 17 dragédies stretch over three decades and three continents :

- La mer amarrée
- de Vermis Seoulis
- Le Dévisseur
- Le regard d'un ami
- Brouillon
- La Bibliothèque de Babel II
- Neige Sale
- Paranoïa
- Etat de Grâce
- Nouvelles du front
- Le Salon de Lecture
- La Malédiction
- Comin'up next
- Si Paris m'était comptée
- Le blues de la grille
- Rendez-vous Rue Van Boo
- L'Année du Chien

Yup. That's in French. Or kindo. So luckily, it won't be as poorly written as these lines.

And oh. That's fiction. I mean both the book and this last wishful comment.

Stephane - Seoul Village 2009

* "dragédies (la mer amarrée et autres dragédies)" - ISBN:978-1449510916 - Soccer nerds can still order my other book (also in French), "La Ligue des Oubliés, l'autre histoire du football" : "The League of the Forgotten / The Other History of Football" tells the tales of unlucky soccer players, personalities or events - they didn't even have the chance to exist.

see this post in French on blogules (VF)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sejong City

Chung Un-chan's confirmation hearings revive Sejong City controversies : Korea's next Prime Minister has been vocal against one of the late Roh Moo-hyun's most ambitious projects.

Sejong City ? The Brasilia of Korea : a new city built from scratch to accomodate the central government in a more central location (in Yeongi and Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do, on the Geumgang river). Korea is a little bit smaller than Brazil, but Seoul concentrates too much power in the country, and Roh wanted to change the ways of local politics. Will this project meet the same tragic end ?

Announced in 2002 during the presidential campaign and officialized by a March 18, 2005 law, the MAC (Multifunctional Administrative City) was named after Korea's most beloved king, the great Sejong.

Sejong Special Autonomous City (세종 특별자치시 - Sejong Teukbyeol Jachisi) broke ground on July 20, 2007 and plans the first massive transfers of administrations in 2012. When construction is completed, in 2030, Sejong area (3,579 km²) shall host 4 million people, the core of the project (72.9 km²) claiming half a million souls.

The MACCA (Multifunctional Administrative City Construction Agency)* was inaugurated on January 1st, 2006, with the daunting task of delivering the goods. "Multifunctional" means a selfsustaining metropolis, complete with "central administration", "local administration", "culture and international exchange",
"university and research" (a MOU was recently clinched with KAIST), "medical and welfare", and "cutting edge industry".

Sejong will learn from that other utopia, Songdo new city, focusing on environment and quality of life, with the usual IT touch. Each individual will enjoy an average 50 square meters of urban park, more than 5 times the national average : green space will cover 53% of the city (21% for residential, 14% for public facilities, 6% for education and culture). Thanks to a ring-shaped public transportation network, everyone will reach any part of the city from anywhere in the city within 20 minutes.

Sejong is not Brasilia, in the total middle of nowhere : Cheongju International Airport is not far away, nor is Daejeon. Remember Daejeon Expo 1992 ? Then, the idea was to grow a new hub at the center of Korea. And Daejeon is now a major center, connected with Seoul, Busan and Gwangju by KTX and highways... Sejong would compete with Daejeon but if carefully planned synergies could work, the Tokyo-Yokohama or Seoul-Incheon way. Korea would then have a third megalopole to balance Seoul and Busan...

Now the $45 bn question : will it fly ?

Chung points out the economic cost : beyond the tens of billions of dollars invested in the project, operating expenditures for the central administration are likely to explode, with permanent shuttles between Sejong and Seoul, and probably two houses for big fishes.

I'm more worried about the political and social consequences of Sejong City :

- At the beginning, the political genetic pool shall gain in diversity but in the medium to long term, the risk of sedimentation looks too great. The proportion of politicians and lobbyists will be too high, and I see at best a DC-style microcosm and at worst a Bruxelles-style lobbyist heaven (very likely if only part of the administration moves**). Not the best way to fight corruption. International appeal ? Visitors shall be motivated by politics... unless the cultural proposition exceeds that of, say, a city like Seoul.

- Seoul is close to North Korea, granted. But chances are relationships will change by 2030, and building the equivalent of a new capital city further away may sound like a costly distraction twenty years from now.

- Koreans feel betrayed by politicians and a remote government, and Sejong City is supposed to put the agora back to the center of the country. It may work, but the opposite effect is more than likely : an even more remote government in an even more artificial bubble...

The Songdo concept has its weaknesses but more consistence. The challenge looks much greater here, where the vision appears to be essentially political and top down...

But of course, Korea "can do". And might even, once again, deliver.

Seoul Village 2009

** that could take a big chunk from Jongno-gu and Yeouido : ministries, assemblies, supreme court, presidency... the Washington, D.C. way. If only the bureaucracy moves, the balance of power collapses in favor of lobbyists.

ADDENDUM 20091128

"Sejong City and the beauty of lameduckhood"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Seoul Village Map

This excuse for a site mentions only a tiny fraction of all the places I'd like to write about, and this excuse for a map only a tiny fraction of all the places mentioned in Seoul Village :

View Seoul Village in a larger map

The idea is eventually to facilitate the navigation from each post to the relevant locations, and vice-versa.

Thank you for your patience and comprehension.

Seoul Village 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Onggolmyeon (Seoul)

I strongly recommend, at the feet of Nowon Station (Line 4), a very small eatery that used to be a mandu place. The speciality, onggolmyeon, is a delicate and fresh bibim guksu (mixed noodle salad) with julienne veggetables, dry seaweed (gim), black sesame seeds, and meat. No gochujang, very soothing. They also make flat mandu that taste like crepes.

Typically the kind of places that make Seoul so unique.

Onggolmyeon / 옹골면
598-2 Sanggye-2-dong, Nowon-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel : +82.2.6221.8202

UPDATE 20110614 : the bibim is now served on a plate (less convenient, but still delicious - and cheap: KRW 4,500), and under the new system, the address is Sanggye-ro 70.

Seoul Village 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chung Mong-joon keeps rising...

I still don't get it.

Haemil future headquarters just reached their "ground floor"*, and they look every bit as massive as I feared they would (see "
Haemil - a think tank or only a tank ?").

Come on. This is absurd. Almost comical.

From the outside, it looks like those villas built by careless owners optimizing every square centimeter of land they own, not caring if neighbors will face a wall fifty centimeters from their windows. The new building deliberately mocks at all the rules set to prevent abuses : it's bigger than the previous construction, taller than its neighbors, and in one of Seoul's supposedly most protected areas ! On royal grounds claimed by the Japanese during the occupation...

The irony of it is that it will host a think tank meant to boost the image of a future presidential candidate taking infinite precaution to soften his reputation.

I have no doubt he will enjoy a royal view from the upper floors and the roof... but at best, Haemil Headquarters will look like a massive and odd extension to the royal palace, and at worst, the royal palace will look like a small annex to Haemil.

Obviously, Chung Mong-joon's advisors don't have a clue about what they're doing. I can hear them say : "we can still gain some square meters, make it even bigger, it will pass don't worry, I know such and such and we'll get the authorization"... well they obviously won, but at what cost ?

What is the message here ? My ego is bigger than historic sites ? I'm used to getting the best for myself, even if it's not the best for my country, even if it's over the limits, I'm above the rules and I don't care about the consequences... ? this is the way I think and act, would you please vote for me as your next president ?...

Someone seems to care. Someone who, somehow, thinks within this "think tank". Enough to understand that this may be not so good for the image of a future president. This person obtained that the publicity around the construction be minimized : people working there refuse to talk about it, there is no mention of Haemil nor of the purpose of the building on the site (first time I asked they said it would be a "library"), and I know when there's a press conference at nearby KFA because that's the only moment when they stop working. Otherwise, they're busy every day until after dark. As if this genius thought he could go away with it. "No one stopped us during the construction, now it's too late ! What's done can't be undone."

What that great thinker doesn't seem to understand is that completing construction without any reaction doesn't solve anything. To the contrary, it makes things worse : the mess is bound to hit the fan, and the later it does, the uglier.

We are not talking about some "folie" built in a discreet Hyoja-dong alleyway, but about a landmark which will be as visible as the big advertisings behind Namdaemun gate, which in their times stirred so many controversies (all pictures of Sungnyemun featured the logo of an international express mail service provider in the background).

Every visitor to Gyeonghuigung (and more and more people discover this central spot these days) will wonder : who dared build this big thing right behind the palace in 2009 ? and who on Earth let that happen ?

Chung Mong-joon just became the Grand National Party's new leader, opening a boulevard for himself towards the next presidential elections**. Good for him, but he should also take care of that other urban development before it's too late.

My guess : he may need a bulldozer...

... Speaking of which : Lee Myung-bak, who wants the constitution to allow second terms for presidents, introduced a new contender by naming Seoul National University Professor Chung Un-chan his next Prime Minister.

Just in case ?

Seoul Village 2009

ADDENDUM 20090924

The construction of the last floor started today... oh my oh my oh my it's even bigger than I feared.

* as expected, the first "basement" is at the same level as the ground floor of the building next door.
** Oh Se-hoon officially wants to serve a second term as Mayor of Seoul

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Gwangju completes the Seongnam-Hanam merger

It didn't take too long for Gwangju to join the Seongnam - Hanam party (see "Seongnam and Hanam merge").

For the missing and central piece of the puzzle, it was only a matter of "when"... and "how" to justify the flip-flop.

Officially, Gwangju authorities refused in the first place for a lack of consensus at the national level, but the Ministry of Public Administration and Security almost begged them to change their minds. And now, the former capital is eager to push for the merger, even initiating a poll for as early as this month.

Whatever... Seoul has now a significant giant at its doors :
as we saw earlier, Gwangju + Seongnam + Hanam is as big as Seoul, claims about 1.3 M souls, and boasts major IT and cultural centers.

Bonus : now, the green spaces at the frontier between Seongnam and Hanam will not necessarily be destroyed.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In 2050, almost 10% of Korea's population will not be Korean

Not so long ago, Korea celebrated its first millionth foreigner (see "One Million Aliens"). The Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS) expects that number to reach 2.5 M in 2020 and 4 M in 2050*.

We recently learnt that at the same mid-century horizon, and even in spite of the "mixed kids" boom, Korean population will be 13% smaller than now ("
The Incredible Shrinking Korea").

The combination of both trend means that in 2050, almost 10% of the people living in Korea will not be Korean.

My guess is that at least one third of these "foreigners" will be Korean. Either ethnic Koreans from China, or North Koreans, or ethnic Koreans from the US and other parts of the diaspora.

One day or the other, tough political choices will have to be made.

I'm not talking about measures to revert birth ratio trends, but about decisions regarding naturalization and rights given to non-nationals.

Many people in their twenties to thirties left the country over the past decades, and their kids may be more prone to choose Korean nationality if the Government understands the need to welcome fresh blood with an international background. Depending on the situation up North, military duties could change dramatically by 2050, facilitating the return of prodigal sons who escaped Korea's tough education and military service systems.

But the most important choices shall regard ethnic Koreans from China and North Korea. How will Korea cope with their increasing number ? After decades of integration, they will necessarily become a political force, even if they don't have the right to vote. You certainly don't want Korea to be demographically "
hanschlussed" by China, but you don't want Koreans to treat their brothers like "burakumin" or second-class citizens either.

Tensions are bound to rise over the next decades, and rulers must invest NOW in education and pedagogy if they want to prevent major crises. Korea shouldn't wait until racism and prejudice grow stronger to fight at their roots. Korea should prepare the population for a better and more diverse future : immigration is a chance for Korea and for its identity, not a threat. And in exchange, Korea must provide opportunities for immigrants to contribute more directly as an essential part of the community.

I'm really impressed by all the efforts made to help newcomers, but I'm not sure the Korean population is as well prepared for the changes to come.

Now is the time to decide which path the country will follow for this century.

Seoul Village 2009

ADDENDUM 20090907

An awful racial incident may trigger change. This week-end, an Indian professor was verbally aggressed by a drunk man on a bus in Seoul. The culprit is charged, but people noticed that the law was not adapted for this kind of situations, and something positive could come out of this shameful moment.



* see "
Foreigners to make up 10 pct of Korea's population in 2050: report" (Yonhap 20090903)

President Lee, please keep digging

War is always a tragedy, and civil war always an even dirtier mess. Korean War was no exception, with infamous abuses from all sides of the conflict.

Under Roh Moo-hyun's watch, Korea decided to get the record straight and face its own troubled past. An independant commission had to be set up for the task : The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic Of Korea (TCRK)*.

That was a noble and courageous step forward, necessary to secure the future of democracy. And the ultranationalists who denounce the Commission and keep lobbying against it are actually undermining Korea as a nation. They don't like to hear about previously taboo topics (such as Gwangju Massacre), but I guess they would love to see
Japan taking the same sound and courageous steps regarding its own history...

These extremists may be winning (and thus Korea losing), because the mandate for the commission set up for the task is unlikely to be renewed later this year. I learned the shocking news from CHOE Sang-hun's essential paper about Korean War secrets in today's NYT / IHT**.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission ** is doing a terrific job, confirming 50 mass killings of civilians, locating 168 mass graves, and on the way to recovering the remains of 1,700 civilians by April 2010.

Along with sad cases from Goyang and Gwangamri***, the journalist brought up this very true comment from Heonik Kweon : "what South Korea now does with these ruins of the 20th century will surely have huge implications on how the country will define its identity in the new century and its moral standing in the regional and world community".

So President Lee, leave Korean greenbelts alone, but please keep digging for truth, even if it's inconvenient, and particularly if it's inconvenient.

And in the unfortunate event of a rebuke, I hope some whealthy citizens will keep this essential quest afloat.

SM -
Seoul Village 2009

* The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic Of Korea ( :
Under the Framework Act on Clearing up Past Incidents for Truth and Reconciliation, the Commission’s purpose is to foster national legitimacy and reconcile the past for the sake of national unity by honoring those who participated in anti-Japanese movements and exposing the truth by investigating incidents regarding human rights abuses, violence, and massacres occurring since Japanese rule to the present time, specifically during the nation’s authoritarian regimes.
** "
Korea Investigates Atrocities in Race Against Time" (New York Times 20090904)

*** judging by the map I guess that's Gwangam-ri in Illo-eup, Muan-gun, Jeollanam-do. That's the point I'll position on the map.

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