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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

About handovers and hangovers

Collateral damage of the Cheonan tragedy : Korea postponed the hand over of operational control of its military affairs from US to homegrown boys with toys. In a scene worthy of Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, the top general in charge happened to be drunk at the worst moment (remember that Clinton ad about the 3 A.M. phone call ?).

No MP was allegedly wasted during the vote on Sejong City, but the parliament nonetheless sunk LEE Myung-bak's revision plan 164 to 105 (6 abstentions, zero wicket, no overtime). Retrospectively, it appears that the President perfectly manipulated that hot potato :
- in front of History, LEE did the right thing : declaring that ROH Moo-hyun's project of relocating the capital city was not only populist but wrong for the country and had to be aborted, even if that meant contradicting his own campaign pledges to go according to the initial plan*
- in front of Chungnam voters, LEE did the right thing : propose a sustainable alternative, with the contribution of wealthy backers*
- and as a shrewd politician, LEE did the right thing : using the Sejong City controversy as the ideal scapegoat following his party's electoral debacle, playing Pontius Pilate and letting the parliament curb the dog, torpedoing his Prime Minister (CHUNG Un-chan, a Sejong City opponent but also a potential presidential candidate for the opposition before this mess), destroying fellow party members who voted against the revised plan (history will remember that picture of Park Geun-hye checking NO on her computer screen, that moment when personal ambition killed her political future)... and pursuing his own insanely pharaonic pet follies (ie the even more controversial Four Rivers Project).

Of course, local elections shouldn't decide for the fate of a National Capital, and a nationwide referendum would make more sense. Furthermore, the concept was already ruled as non constitutional by the Supreme Court, and seriously edulcorated : only the PM and half of the ministries would move, actually splitting the Central Government in two and its efficiency in countless ways.

Of course, it ain't over till it's over. As they emerged from their "victory" hangover, Chungcheongnam-do voters realized their mistake and demanded the B Plan to be implemented as well because it was economically much more sustainable : big companies, who would have invested billions in that Utopia 2.0, are now freed from their engagements and courted by all other local administrations.

An embarrassment for Korea, the potato is uglier and hotter than ever, and will land on the next president's lap.

Both the military and capital handovers are supposed to happen in 2015, but I wouldn't bet a buck on either of them. More hangovers ? Now that's a sure bet.

Seoul Village 2010

* see "
Sejong City and the beauty of lameduckhood" and all posts related to Sejong City.

Gwanghwamun restoration : too bballi-bballi ?

The other day*, I mentioned the acceleration of operations at the Gwanghwamun renovation site.

It was not just an impression : the Korean Government wants the work to be completed by the end of July ! It already pushed for an inauguration ahead of the November G20 meeting, but now the concept is to be ready for August 15 / 8.15, Korea's Independence Day.

Fine, but we're not just talking about a yearly event, here : just like Sungnyemun, this gate was supposed to be rebuilt by scrupulously respecting traditional methods. Time was of the essence, but in a Confucian meaning, not the "빨리빨리" way.

Try to explain that to a self-proclaimed "Bulldozer"...

Seoul Village 2010

* "
Jongno-gu renovation - continued" - as a matter of fact, the finition of the walls around Sajik-dan took much more time

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Jongno-gu renovation (continued)

Seoul is a permanent working site and even downtown, countless buildings are under construction. Some positive work is also under way for the preservation of Jongno heritages and even if I've been watching them every day it's hard to keep track of everything. A few updates :

- Gwanghwamun : after spreading its wings (lateral walls) over the past few weeks, the gate has just grown feathers (splendid dark tiles) and shedding duvet (the multicolor silhouette of Gwanghwamun was removed from the metal structure covering the renovation site). Inauguration day is definitely approaching, and I'm quite excited : I was glad to see the old Japanese government building disappear, and I can't wait to see the royal Sejongno-Gwanghwamun-Bugaksan-Bukansan perspective fully restored.

- To the East - Yulgokno tunnel (see "
Jongmyo-Changdeokgung reunited") : here is what the 275 m long structure will look like around Donhwamun - Wonnam-dong. Constructors are being selected until September, work will start in October, and inauguration is scheduled for EOY 2012. As I mentioned before, I very much like the ideas of reconnecting Changdeok palace with Jongmyo, and of burying traffic underground, but the cultural alibi doesn't excuse the 50% increase in traffic (from 4 to 6 lanes, even if - or so do I hope at least - two are reserved for buses and public transportation). Traffic must be diverted from downtown instead of increased, and what Seoul needs is an underground circular bypass to aleviate traffic (ie beween East, Northeast, West, Northwest, without passing by city center). Furthermore, this is not a tunnel but a hill built over a road, with the risk of pulling further apart two neighborhoods.

- To the West - sidewalk renovations West of Gwanghwamun towards Sajik-dan (see "
Sajik-dan enshrined, Naeja-dong revived ?") are well advanced now on both sides of Sajikno, and the Gyeongbokgung Station exits far more welcoming. Note that Seoul is getting serious about the look of its streets : you've already noticed the nice grey booths for street vendors, and the elegant black signs mentioning touristic landmarks. Jongno-gu voted stricter guidelines for outdoor advertising, particularly on commercial buildings. This revolution will not happen overnight, but change seems on the way.

- To the South : Junghakcheon restoration (see "Pimatgol, a streamlet runs through it") is advancing as well in a post-war landscape : many buildings have been removed around Gwanghwamun Square and Jongro, most lately on Doryeom-dong-gil, where I wouldn't be surprised to see archeologists find interesting vestiges under the rubbles from very ugly commercial buildings from the late 60s - early 70s. The atmosphere is really strange, particularly in Cheongjin-dong (former Pimatgol and future KT headquarters). On Shinmunro, two new pedestrian crossings have been created. One goes from the Seoul Museum of History to the new building about to be completed next to Citibank. Between both buildings, the Russian Legation (previously hidden by nondescript horrors) is now clearly visible to all visitors to the museum or to Gyeonghui Palace. The other pedestrian crossing is next to the Gangbuk Samsung Hospital, surprisingly close to the existing crossing joining Jeongdong... but not that surprising if you remember that other renovation project : Donuimun gate should be reconstructed precisely between both pedestrian crossings (see "
Donuimun restoration and Sadaemun resurrection")... so I guess construction could be starting pretty soon.Seoul Village 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time to respect the real Seoul

Time to respect the real Seoul

At long last, Seoul is starting to claim the spot it deserves on the international stage. But if the Korean capital can leverage on unique assets and an amazing ability to make things happen, it must also find the courage to go even further in recent reforms, at maybe one of the most defining moments in its history. On this path, it must leverage on old and new blends of enthusiastic Seoulites from all horizons.

By the way : please don’t call me an ‘Alien’. I wasn’t beamed down here. And don’t call me a ‘Foreigner’ either : I’d feel at best an outsider, at worst some sort of lethal contaminant. ‘Expatriate’ ? I didn’t leave my country : I love Korea, that’s all. ‘Non-Korean’ ? You can’t define yourself with what you are not. ‘International Resident’ ? Better, but it almost sounds like a sticky and itchy kind of parasite… I’m just a Seoulite who happens to be French. And from Paris.

Apparently, the contrast couldn’t be sharper between a museum-city where time seems suspended, and a “Tombstone Apartment Dystopia” where instantaneous is not fast enough. But I love Seoul as much as Paris, and yes, I do consider them as equally beautiful. The beauty of Seoul is much more fragile and delicate than it seems : while postcard faves experience a revival, too many backstage wonders are on the verge of extinction.

Over the past few years, this city has been consistently improving as a major tourist and business destination, as well as a welcoming home for foreign residents. And even more recently, it has started to care about its own sustainability, to consider alternative dynamics, to embrace a long term vision. But reforms face resistance, and Seoul has yet to fine-tune its own delicate balance between its past, present, and future.

It’s high time to save and sublimate the city’s uniqueness, and the challenge is both urban and human.

First challenge : a cityscape respecting Seoul’s past and future

Ever the shapeshifter, Seoul survived massive destructions during the Korean War, and over the six following decades never stopped doing, undoing, and redoing parts of itself at an amazing pace. Cultural treasures keep being destroyed, but this insane “erase / rebuild” cycle is about to end : you simply cannot beat common sense and demographics forever.

Typically, dwellings cannot be anymore manufactured and marketed like consumer goods to be dumped and replaced by the next generation : for better or for worse, what’s being built now is here to last, and will define Seoul’s cityscape for centuries. So instead of following nowadays fads, the fateful “always taller” equation, and short term profits, planners must consider long term value, and contribute to a more consistent, sustainable future.

Money can buy eccentricity and fancy designs, but money is also destroying Seoul’s priceless landscape : the capital’s founders selected the location for good reasons, and no other World capital can boast as beautiful a mountain system. I’m glad some measures were taken to restore the fortress and its gates, or to protect certain mountain tops, but high rise buildings keep being allowed everywhere, obliterating mountains and depriving the city of its most valuable landmarks, lungs and assets, turning the Joseon capital into some anonymous megalopolis. I often say that Seoul has just one mountain too many : ‘Budongsan’ (‘real estate’ in Korean).

Seoul is not Bilbao, a city that relied on one landmark building to be put on the map. Seoul is not Dubai, a caprice born on the desert. And Seoul is not Beijing, a capital relatively spared by war destructions. But Seoul can learn from all : people can come once for a mirage, they only come back for the real thing, and they hate to see the real thing disappear in favor of more mirages. Western visitors to the 2008 Beijing Olympics voiced out their disappointment when they realized traditional Hutong houses had been massively destroyed to make room for soulless accommodations. In Seoul, the most vocal opponents to the Hanok genocide are Westerners living in traditional Korean houses. Long overdue, the time of preservation seems at last about to come : the municipality has pledged to prevent the destruction of cultural assets (expressing remorse for places like Pimatgol), and taken the first significant steps to protect certain clusters or to promote hanok stay. Even some Korean speculators are starting to understand the value of traditional houses. But only an immediate moratorium would stop the bleeding and pave the way for wiser decisions.

Wiser decisions, when everybody claims to turn green, could be to diminish automobile domains instead of extending them : at the very moment Seoul was restoring Cheonggyecheon, it was also planting new elevated concrete monsters. New Towns should include from day one new subway stations, not new highways pouring more vehicles into existing bottlenecks. New motorways only add value when they actually alleviate traffic, like underground circular bypasses doubled with multimodal public transport hubs.

On the bright side, Seoul is changing for the better in countless fields. Dedicated bus lanes have totally revolutionized public transportation, and all public buses are progressively switching to natural gas, waiting for even cleaner fuels (ie Seoul can lead the pack if OLEV technology delivers the goods). Air pollution remains an issue but keeps decreasing steadily, and can be now monitored by every citizen through a transparent online information system. Concrete overpasses are being removed at major crossroads, public gardens planted in previously suffocating neighborhoods, streams revived, avenues lined up with trees, pedestrian streets created, bicycle lanes extended, modest though charming alleyways reconsidered as true Seoul cultural assets… The municipality is also trying a bit harder to curb speculation, and pragmatically searching for alternatives to the Apartment Blocks Curse (ie “Human Towns” concept).

And if you can argue for days over its architectural details, the new Gwanghwamun Square has been from day one a success from an urban point of view : it not only restored Seoul’s most beautiful perspective on Bukhansan, but also reunified city center around Sejongno (to the Square’s opponents who preferred Sejongno as a highway : THAT’s the high way), and furthermore put humans back into the landscape. At last, pedestrians don’t feel anymore like mere parasites in a car centric world, and tourists can discover Seoul on foot, not just from a taxi.

So I’m confident about the future, but reforms must be pushed all the way right now, and every district should start its own treasure hunt before it’s too late.

Second challenge : respecting all social dynamics and human capitals

Seoul is a modern megalopolis full of life and energy, but also a collection of small villages more or less trapped in charming time capsules. Everyone manages to evolve, but internal clocks are not all set on the same time : Seoulites have developed unique and contrasted evolutionary dynamics. On one hand, powerful innovation factories : swift decision making, almost instantaneous time to market and mass adoption, returns on experience richer and faster than anywhere else. On the other hand, informal social workshops : pockets of slow digestion of change, at the same time conservatories of Korean traditions and laboratories for new urban traditions. This incredible social mix makes Seoul truly unique and contributes to its attractiveness as both a business and a tourist destination.

Needless to say, the most endangered ecosystem is the latter. Partly because older generations are not very much involved in the big picture, when they are not simply ignored as haunting symbols from an embarrassingly underdeveloped past, neither in touch with the present, nor connected to the “ubiquitous city”. But to the contrary, it’s the rest of the population who often needs to reconnect, to keep in touch with reality, to belong to the city. Farmers who fed the capital before joining it during the massive post-war rural exodus are not only an essential component but the very cement on which Seoul holds : they create and maintain lively neighborhood relationships across compartmentalized complexes, they grow flowers and vegetables in sterile alleyways, they make market visits worthwhile for tourists as well as for their fellow citizens, they know the value of time and seasons, they remember all initiatives that were ever tried, failures as well as successes… They are the living memory and the very soul of Seoul, its most precious and most overlooked source of knowledge.

Here too, Seoul hidden treasures are under threat, and time is of the essence : Korea is ageing at a record pace, and its capital city must make sure its own citizens will grow not only older but also wiser. The Seoul Museum of History is doing an fantastic job collecting and sharing memories across generations of Seoulites, and Seoul authorities are timely starting to reach out for segments of populations that until now were not in the loop for urban planning : senior citizens, students, young couples… Bonus : bridging generational and cultural gaps between Seoulites could also train the city for further demographical / cultural challenges (ie coping with massive migrations from North Korea, anyone ?).

Seoul is preparing even more actively for another major evolution : by 2050, more than 10% of Korean residents will not be Korean nationals, and the proportion is likely to be much higher in the capital - already 2.4% today, that’s more than a quarter million souls, mostly ethnic Koreans and Asians but from increasingly diverse horizons, and scattered far beyond traditional clusters (the biggest international neighborhood is not Itaewon but Garibong, in Guro-gu).

Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen Seoul progressively evolve into a cosmopolitan capital, and recently, two major trends signal a decisive cultural shift.

First, the country’s most valuable natural resource, the energy of its own people, is now reaching far beyond Korean nationals or members of the Korean diaspora : whatever you name it (Koreanity ? Koreanitude ? Koreanhood ? Koreanism ?), a significant part of that spirit is now carried by people who, from all parts of the world, feel that positive spark inside, that sense of belonging. In Seoul, international residents, generally tempted to reproduce their own native environments, seem more often eager to contribute as normal citizens. And even if language is less a barrier now, more and more can speak Korean. Traditionally “specialized” in business expats for big multinationals or teachers, Korea is developing a promising international SME ecosystem which will probably be fueled by an increasing number of international students : the whole country targets 100,000 for 2010 compared to only 3,373 ten years ago and in 2009, Seoul National University and Yonsei alone claimed a combined 2,786 foreign undergraduates plus 1,535 graduates. Unsurprisingly, Seoul is also becoming a magnet for young entrepreneurs roaming Asia in search of opportunities.

The second trend is the energy with which the Seoul Metropolitan Government is reaching for all foreign residents. Not only to help them fully enjoy Seoul, but also to get their constant feedback and suggestions about how to improve everyday life for all citizens. The Seoul Global Center perfectly illustrates Seoul dynamics at their best : you spot a need, you put a team on it, you propose solutions, you get instant feed back, and you keep improving and adding services in a pragmatic, inclusive, ongoing, and evolutionary process : consultations about daily life or business issues in several languages, Korean lessons, a business start-up school program… The 2 year-old SGC operates 7 Global Village Centers across the capital, and recently opened a Seoul Global Business Support Center in COEX (a business gateway in a business center and a business district : Gangnam-gu boasts 2,000 foreign companies). It even organizes on site consultations to reach migrant workers who couldn’t enjoy the services otherwise. No other city designed such a comprehensive one-stop-service system for its foreign residents, and free of charge at that. The Seoul Global Center is now a subject of international benchmarking, and a model for other Korean cities (Ulsan launched its own Global Center last March).

Seoul claimed the 12th position in urban competitiveness in 2009, up from the 27th in 2006. To reach higher, it must involve more citizens in its own past, present, and future. Granted, “creative city governance” also caused a few overhyped projects, but you can’t get everything right when you try so many things.

A defining moment, a unique opportunity

Korea is paradoxically growing older and bolder : breaking all records for low birth rates, but also experiencing for the first time global recognition as a political, economical, and cultural power. Both phenomena stress the growing importance of multiculturalism in a country traditionally used to rely on its own dynamics, but also the need to reform and to adapt, and the need to reaffirm its identity without sinking into identitarianism, to preserve without embracing conservatism.
What will Seoul look like one hundred years from now ? We should get a pretty good picture much earlier than we think, so let’s not waste the years to come repeating past mistakes, and let’s work today for the city’s long term attractiveness. International benchmarking will help, but Seoul is not a me-too product and has a unique opportunity to become a model city. So Seoul must act as a leader and not a follower, respect fragile ecosystems and key elements of its own DNA, keep evolving without losing its soul. And keep the eye on the ball : it’s nice to promote Korean cuisine worldwide, but first make sure that every five-star hotel in Seoul has a Korean restaurant (only two do so right now).
What does it mean to be a Seoulite in this century ? It’s feeling that you are part of the city and the city is a part of you, even if you don’t live there. And like New York or Paris, Seoul has its own inclusive but original flavor, not the uniform world brew you can find everywhere. There again, a little bit like Korean food, maybe : tasty, diverse, intense.

Stephane MOT -
Seoul Village 2010

Twice red-faced, after hours

This morning, my neighborhood rooster sang something closer to "go Korea" than to the French National Anthem. He probably caught the rythm during the night : the World Cup gathering at Seoul Plaza was as loud as expected.

Relieved from the shame of watching my fellow citizens reaching the bottom and digging even further with their bare hands (please, President Elect Laurent Blanc, tell me 'change is coming'), I managed to sleep a little bit between the merciful elimination of Les Bleus and the lucky yet logical qualification of the Taeguk Warriors.

It's great to have two national teams to support : like 1994 and 2002, 2010 is a red-face edition for France but a red-devil year for Korea*.

Frankly, I expected either Nigeria or Cameroon to reach the semis or even the final this year, but both wasted their great potentials. A classic for Nigerians in World Cups I'm afraid. Koreans deserved finishing ahead because they played their game and made much fewer mistakes... except of course for the non-game against Argentina.

Even if they only managed to draw against les petits Bleus, Uruguayans will be a tough cookie to crack. And they certainly won't forget to put someone on the far post on free kicks or corners.

Relieved from the "16 강" pressure, I hope Park & co will give it all, have no regrets whatever the result. And that on monday morning, the rooster will wake me to the tune of "saturday night fever".

Seoul Village 2010

* note that both 1998 and 2006 were red-card years for Zidane.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

1950 Seoul - 6.25 60th Anniversary Special Exhibition

If Korean War was a nationwide tragedy, Seoul suffered more than its share of destruction as a prize changing hands four times during the conflict, its population constantly on the move, trying to flee battlefields or retaliations from new occupants.

Korean War started almost 60 years ago, on June 25th, 1950 - also known as "6.25".

North Koreans entered Seoul via Uijeongbu only two days later, and it took them two more to claim the capital city as their own. In the process, bridges over Han river were destroyed, leaving some ROK units caught on the wrong side. UN forces fought their way back in after Incheon Landing (Sept 15), allowing McArthur and Syngman Rhee to enter Seoul on September 29. The city fell again on January 3, 1951 (all the population leaving ahead of NK and Chinese troops - only 3,000 of Seoul's 130,000 citizens stayed), and was finally liberated two months later, on March 14. One month later, the flow of refugees (particularly from the North) pushed the population up to 320,000.

Seoul forged much of its modern identity during those crucial months, and Seoul Museum of History decided to focus on the year 1950 for its latest photo exhibition. As usual, the museum pay much attention to the daily lives of Seoul citizens, the memory of a people, the scars and hopes of a city. Propaganda is exposed as it was, not for a political agenda like in
that awful exhibition at Cheonggyecheon. Meant for a Korean audience*, the exhibition is of course a must for everyone.

1950 Seoul - 6.25 60th Anniversary Special Exhibition
Seoul Museum of History - Special Exhibition Gallery B
20100617 ~ 20100808
50 Saemunan-gil / 2-1 Shinmunro-2-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea 110-062
Phone : 120 (Dasan hotline)

Seoul Village 2010

* recent polls show that 33% couldn't tell the right year for 6.25, with of course significant differences depending on the age : "only" 24.5% of those over 50, 21.3% for those in their 40s, 24.4% for 30s, but an astonishing 47.4% for the 19 to 29 year olds.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Moraenae Seollongtang (Seoul)

Moraenae-gil, the Northern side of Hongjecheon, is lined with meat restaurants because Moraenae Market used to be the main spot for meat (and even cattle trading, as you can see on early 1900s pictures). Nowadays, many cabbies stop by because the food is good, not as expensive as in fancy restaurants, and parking is easy.

If you want seollongtang and more original specialities using beef parts ranging from head to tail, Moraenae Seollongtang is a sure bet. Not the oldest institution around, but already reaching its first quarter of century.

For the ox soup, you don't even have to bother mixing the rice, it's directly served in the soup. All you have to do is season it the way you like it. And of course wolf it down.

Moraenae Seollongtang / 모래내설농탕 (restaurant)
415-6 Hongeun-3-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel +82.2.0)2.304.0311

Seoul Village 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"Be The Reds", But Not Too Red ?

I was maybe a bit too optimistic when I rolled out the "Red carpet for the World Cup" a couple of weeks ago : since then, the North Korean team has probably lost a few supporters in South Korea (and beyond), and Seoul Plaza might not turn out to be the most popular venue.

Following a clash with SK Telecom and other sponsors of downtown World Cup venues, The Red Devils, Korean national team's main supporter group* and a key ingredient to successful World Cup events, decided to focus on only one site : Samseong-dong in Gangnam-gu. Sponsors wanted to regulate the songs (both the timing and content), supporters freedom of speech and independence from sponsors. Ironically, several songs are associated with other sponsors, and the 2002 "Korea Team Fighting" slogan was at the beginning an ad for KTF, SKT's direct competitor. One of the outcomes of this clash could be the creation of a rival group of supporters.

Anyway, World Cup broadcasters SBS accepted the Red Devils' terms, to the risk of inviting more partisans of freedom of speech. And since the venue, in front of Bongeunsa, has become a converging point for demonstrations against LEE's conservative government, political recuperation seemed inevitable. As expected, candlestick vigil organizers instantly called for combo events, like 'come to our demo at 7 PM, enjoy the game at 8'... and shortly after that, Red Devils whistled them offside, like 'true supporters come for football, please don't mix this event with politics'.

I suggest a red card to all players : organizers, sponsors, supporters, broadcasters, and demonstrators.

Seoul Village 2010

* that's the South Korean national team. It always struck me as funny how this nickname for North Korean 'commies' in 1960s ROK propaganda became a symbol of 2000s ROK.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Arrested Redevelopment

Seoul Metropolitan Government is considering changing construction laws : to prevent whole areas from lingering away because of struggling redevelopment plans, the said plans could be automatically cancelled after a certain period of time.

Sounds like common sense, but that's a courageous step to curb real estate speculation in a country where home value is the main concern.

Typically, Seoul reached the point where not one single dong is spared from rumors of redevelopment, and many areas seem in a weird limbo : everybody is bracing for a redevelopment which will never happen because the equation doesn't add up. People were sold a mirage, cannot afford to move, and actually start regretting the good old days.

No wonder OH Se-hoon waited until after the elections to mention the project : if this reform passes, many areas are bound to see their value plunge, but that's only a virtual loss (except for speculators), and a necessary step to deflate the bubble and get some sanity back on the market. Certain places shall switch to more reasonable concepts, like
human towns, others restart from scratch.

And who knows, some may even realize the value of previously doomed hanoks or charming alleyways and decide to preserve what's truly priceless.

Seoul Village 2010

Pangyo from scratch to crash

Picture this : you're given the opportunity to build from scratch a new town in a green valley with the benediction of the State. Not many existing buildings, essentially a mattress of plastic green houses ("vinyl houses" in good Korean).

This time, we can't get it wrong, can we ?

Yes, we can : 20+ storey-buildings ruining the landscape, colorful tubes of elevated roads snakingly copulating in mid-air, probably about to lay eggs for more baby concrete Cheonggyecheons, and even in front of the newly completed town houses, a tall commercial center destroying the only low rise area. Of course, no subway in this section of the new town.

Welcome to Pangyo New Town.

Or rather West Pangyo, because this New Town has been built on both sides of Highway 1 / Gyeongbu Expressway, an urban landmark as graceful and efficient as the Berlin Wall in the late 60s.

Technically, Pangyo New Town is not a new town but a part of Bundang, an Older New Town, but also a 'gu' of Seongnam city. I remember the construction of that area during the 90s, passing by fields of cranes each time I travelled South, watching Bundang rise up like in a Sim City game on steroids. Every now and then I would have a closer look, and one day the great concrete shell became full of people who seemed to have been living there for decades. That was it.

The Westernmost part of Pangyo hasn't reached that stage yet. Many people have already moved in, and the first services are opening, but many lots remain bare and the sales for low rise sections are only starting these days. A few months from now the place will very much more resemble other Korean cityscapes, a bit greener, but with the usual eyesores ruining natural landmarks. Burying the traffic, even by doubling the existing highways before removing them, wouldn't have cost that much more and would have completely changed the whole story. Forever.

Building towers and elevated roads when you have the possibility to avoid them is simply criminal. Building a New Town around them plainly stupid.

Seoul Village 2010

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

International Archival Culture Exhibition

I almost missed this poorly advertised exhibition but luckily enough passed by the COEX today and saw the billboards : "International Archival Culture Exhibition" with the UNESCO label, that sounded interesting.

Yet I didn't expect to see a genuine Gutenberg bible from Germany, Nelson Mendela's arrest warrant from South Africa, Chopin manuscripts from Poland, Tripitaka Koreana plaques or pages from Joseonwangjosillok, Seungjeongwon Ilgi, Donguibogam or Uigwe from Korea... and many other items listed in UNESCO Memory of the World. The exhibition also includes presentations of national archives from 19 countries, and a comprehensive Korean hall mixing history with popular culture (music, movies, TV, comic books, political posters...).

A small BtoB sub-expo features international specialists representing the usual archiving industries (scanning, filing, storage...), the National Library of Korea and its "Dibrary", but also Kyobo and its ambitions in the ebook ecosystem, and even a booth devoted to the Millennial Anniversary of one of Korea's most outstanding cultural assets, the Tripitaka Koreana (1011-2011)**. The ultimate Buddhist tripitaka will be celebrated for 45 days*** through a festival organized by its host temple Haeinsa and regional administrations (Gyeongsangnam-do, Hapcheon-gun).

I guess the main virtue of the event / party will be to raise awareness in Korea and abroad. Once more : surrounded by beautiful Gayasan, Haein temple and its Janggyeong Panjeon are definitely worth the visit, but check ahead if the treasure has been reopened to the public**.

Seoul Village 2010

* IACE 2010 (COEX - June 1-6th, 2010)
** see "
Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon"
*** between 09.23 and 11.06, 2011 - website :

OH Se-hoon V2.0

After a long night, Seoul Mayor OH Se-hoon was confirmed for a second term, finishing a few thousand ballots ahead of HAN Myeong-sook (47%+ vs 47%-), but with spectacular differences depending on age brackets : HAN ruled over the younger generations and OH over older citizens (no overall voting gender gap).

As expected, an asymetrical campaign opposed an incumbent focusing on his city and a national champion positioning herself in the footsteps of the late President ROH Moo-hyun and against President LEE Myung-bak. The Cheonan tragedy was not really an issue in the last days, when KIM Jong-il faded in the background (a cameo appearance on time for the G20, maybe ?). HAN almost won thanks to a last minute rally leveraging on her base of young voters, and a weaker mobilization in the conservative camp. Overall, the turnout was better than expected, and the weather as sunny as it should be in early June.

At the end of the day - well... the beginning, indeed -, both champions won : OH remains the Mayor, and HAN's Democratic Party (Minju Dang) claims the bulk of Seoul's 25 "gu"*, leaving only Jungnang-gu and LEE's traditional base of haves and have mores (Seocho-gu, Gangnam-gu, Songpa-gu, the latest by the tiniest margin as the real estate bubble keeps deflating) to the ruling conservative Grand National Party (Hanara Dang). To add insult to the injury for the GNP, GWAK No-hyeon (Dem) defeated LEE Won-heui (Con) in the race to the top job for education in Seoul.

Actually, this political cohabitation may suit OH Se-hoon's progressive agenda : he is not exactly a divisive figure, except precisely for the conservative base of real estate speculators who were not very found of his push in favor of a more sustainable development**. And OH would be more than happy to see Seoul's educational system undermine hagwonocracy and restore some of the meritocracy that made the Hangang miracle possible. And to deliver his ambitious promise : Seoul gained 15 places in World capital rankings during his first term (from 27th to 15th), and he pledged to reach the 5th spot by the end of his second mandate.

Easier said than done, but hey, that's politics, and Korean politics at that...

Anyway, for the first time*** Seoul reelected its Mayor, and some continuity won't hurt international recognition.

Seoul Village 2010

* unlike Paris, where voters elect district teams who then decide of the Mayor, such a cohabitation is possible in Seoul since 1995 and the introduction of direct elections for the Metropolitan Mayor.
** even if much remains to be done (ie hanok preservation)
*** GOH Kun served twice but as an appointed Mayor (1988-90 and 1998-2002)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Seoul National University, a league of their own

Korea's most prestigious university, "Seoul Dae", has always been a laughing stock as far as sports are concerned : Seoul National University never leaves the bottom of national rankings in collective sports, and a ten goal deficit in soccer or a twenty run loss in baseball are more than commonplace.

Chosun Ilbo Senior Editor OH Tae-jin nailed an hilarious tribute* to SNU's baseball team, but keeping one's seriousness is not that easy when you consider the bold facts : in 2004, SNU stopped a 199-game losing streak only to start a 56-game losing streak the next match, and personal statistics against this team have not been taken into account in the league standings since 1992.

Now this joke of a team just hired a prestigious coach : LEE Gwang-hwan won the KBO title (Korean pro baseball league) in 1994. Imagine Jose Mourinho taking over the perennial underdog of Portuguese university soccer.

To tell the truth, I find that a bit unfair and disrespectful to essential traditions. Seoul Dae may produce the Korean elite of tomorrow in a campus roughly the size of a small "gu" (Samsung founder's former golf club in Gwanaksan), it may boast an art museum designed by Rem Koolhaas, it still used to be the symbol of meritocracy : a lot of poor students, served a food so miserable you sometimes felt on the wrong side of the DMZ, and not much funding for sports.

But the times they are a-changing. Meritocracy became hagwonocracy nationwide, and SNU starts caring for its image as a sports powerhouse.

Well. "Powerhouse" at least in the meaning "equipped with electricity".

Seoul Village 2010

* "
서울대 야구감독 이광환" / "LEE Gwang-hwan Seoul National University baseball coach" (오태진 20100529 - Chosun Ilbo)

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