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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

After the Cheonan Tragedy : the Juche, Sunshine, or China Line ?

I've been often asked what I thought about the sinking of Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship, presumably by a North Korean torpedo.

The Cheonan tragedy logically raised the issue of succession wars around the ailing KIM Jong-il, who himself played similar nasty tricks to secure his daddy's job (back then, a commercial plane destroyed).

Actually, I mostly consider it as collateral damage from internal tensions within North Korea, between the usual 3 main local lobbies, and particularly the first two :
- what I call the "Juche Line" : die-hard partisans of independence from China, Russia, and of course Western powers starting with the "puppet regimes" down South. From KIM Il-sung to KIM Jong-il, the path has narrowed to a dead end and the position is absolutely not sustainable. The "strategy" or lack of can be summed up as "tricks and treats" : show me the money / dough / rice or else...
- the "China Line" : collaborators for whom the only sustainable way for NK regime is to sell the country to China, play their infamous Northeastern Project, accept their Hanschluss (see for instance "
Great Wall of China - Anschlussing Korea (continued)")
- the (shrinking) "Sunshine Line" : "doves" (or the closest breed you can find that side of the DMZ) for whom the best case scenario would be a reunification with the South in the long term, with small and careful steps on the way, and a progressive evolution of NK politics, economics, and society.

Over the past few years, the change has been spectacular : the LEE Myung-bak government put an end to the Sunshine Policy, putting Jucheists off balance, but precipitating North Korea altogether into the arms of Beijing.

The Cheonan incident confirmed the trend, with very significant changes :
- new tone in Beijing, new vocabulary : a cold reception for KIM Jong-il, and a way of presenting North Korean issues as internal affairs. De facto, North Korea is now considered as a part of China, its rulers must report to Beijing, Beijing is legitimate for everything regarding national politics and security.
- tighter economic ties have been knotted between Beijing and Pyeongyang to compensate for the ones severed with the South.
- the trip of CHANG Sung-taek and KIM Jong-un one year ago in China was obviously very profitable for Beijing : KIM Jong-il's brother in law and son apparently joined the "China Line", isolating more than ever the ailing dictator. CHANG lost a rival in a convenient car accident and created an alternate FDI agency visibly very pro-China, and the now official heir apparent seems to be willing to play the role the big neighbor expected him to play : a DENG Xiaoping-like reformer moving the country (sorry : "the region") closer to "motherland" China.

Meanwhile, in the South, ultra-conservatives fuel mutual hatred on which they thrive, misusing the 60th anniversary of the war and the 100th anniversary of the Japanese rule to actually undermine the nation and help their counterparts in China and Japan. Uncle Sam ? The US want "no drama" in the area, and some would almost be glad to leave it up to China instead of risking more commercial skirmishes. The US-SK joint navy operations, initially planned in the Yellow Sea, have been diplomatically moved to the other side of the peninsula. Gates and Clinton are to visit the DMZ today.

Sadly, the Cheonan tragedy is about North Korean internal politics or, as seen from China, Chinese internal politics.

I don't think now is the time to reactivate the Sunshine Policy as it was, but severing the few positive links was definitely an ideal gift to China.

Seoul Village 2010


After Seoul Station ("When we first met") and the old Defense Security Command ("We meet the future"), the Asian Students and Young Artists Art Festival (titled "Open your eyes, look up the blue sky") will invade Sungshin Women's University.

Does SWU have a plan to turn into a museum ? As we saw earlier :
- Seoul Station, still under renovation, will host a major exhibition space. BTW: Seoul city is looking for pictures of meetings between Korean presidents and Seoul citizens, which used to take place there.
- the Defense Security Command will become the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Contemporary Art / MOCA (see "MOCA - Defense Security Command, continued"). BTW : we'll know within weeks the winner among the five finalist projects.

As usual (see
ASYAAF 2009), ASYAAF will display works from 777 young talents from Korea and other Asian countries, with a break in the middle of the exhibition to replace all items with a new set. And as usual, I strongly advise art lovers to come twice : there's always some good surprise, sometimes where you least expect it, in the darkest corner of the building (see UPDATE BELOW).

Two innovations this year : Korean artists abroad are also participating (ie students from les Beaux Arts in Paris), and curators have mercifully decided to ban the kind of embarrassments that plagued previous editions (typically : "photoshop paintings" of realistic sirupy candies which have more to do with advertising than art).

Part 1 : July 28 - August 8
Part 2 : August 11 - 23
Sungshin Women's University (College of Fine Arts), 249-1 Dongsan-dong 3-ga, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul, ROK 136-742
Subway Line 4, Sungshin Women's University Station Exit 1
Tel : +82.2.724.6361 to 6367

Seoul Village 2010


I DO NOT recommand the visit this year. To my utmost dismay, this edition of the ASYAAF is an embarrassment : the quality is overwhelmingly low and the few familiar faces didn't save the day. The only artistic note was the ballet of workers painting the walls for the inauguration, hanging from their ropes against Seongbuk-gu skyline.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Online sales become the first distribution channel in Korea - or is door-to-door back ?

When I first came to Korea 20 years ago, Department Stores were becoming the main distribution channel for many consumer goods, taking over traditional door-to-door sales.

Convenience stores (FamilyMart, LG25 - now GS25 -, BuyTheWay, 7Eleven...) were also gaining ground. Then came the hypermarkets (eMart, Carrefour at one moment, Samsung / Tesco HomePlus, Lotte Mart...), and the SSMs / SuperSuperMarkets (Lotte mySuper, HomePlus Express, eMart Everyday...).

One by one, small groceries / mom & pop stores closed, and traditional markets plummeted, killed by discount shopping (or supposedly "discount" shopping : a recent survey pointed out that for many food items, traditional markets are actually cheaper). Survivors could count on a system that protected both food majors and small distributors : product packaging including the price tag regardless of the sales channel guaranteed the same price for such basic items as instant noodles or ice creams. But this system is about to be abandoned and anyway, it didn't mean much anymore : big discounters sell their own brands of instant noodles, and my local SSM offers a year-round 50% discount on all ice creams.

Even as competition raged between discount shops, many opening 24/7/365, Department Stores (Lotte DS, Shinsegae DS, Hyundai DS, Galleria DS...), sometimes growing into ambitious complexes (ie Shinsegae Centum City in Busan) remained ahead for many consumer goods and fashion.

Until now : online sales have just become Korea's first distribution channel.

This doesn't come as a surprise for anyone living in "ubiquitous" Korea : beyond pure players (ie Auction), even brick and mortar leaders are pushing ecommerce very hard, prefering cannibalization to the loss of a customer.

Somehow, we're back to square one and door-to-door sales. The first door is your mobile, PC or TV screen, but everything is done to deliver it wherever you live (home deliveries keep booming), wherever you work (Seoul would collapse without cheap express deliveries), and even wherever you go (ie location based services and mobile couponing).

Like for ADSL or FTTH, Korea's economy of access is unbeatable. Because of urban density, because major players are ready to offer what comes as a premium anywhere else, and furthermore because in many cases for smaller fish, the last mile is provided by people working under the legal hourly wage, ready to make a buck even if it doesn't make any sense if you simply take into account transportation costs. When you see a truck carrying about five hundred eggs on a highway, you know something is wrong. And when you order a book online, the delivery person is rarely twice the same plain-clothes individual.

I guess that's one of the reasons why Amazon is not in Korea. The retailer tried to do some business via Samsung / SIMS more than ten years ago but failed. So Amazon ships from other countries to international customers while Kim & Chang law firm securely protects URL.

Of course, Amazon would face pure players in cultural goods, such as Aladdin (now, or Kyobo Book Center (very ambitious in the ebook ecosystem), but I don't think it's about competition : players differenciating themselves on logistic platforms tend to struggle here. Carrefour left the country in spite of commercial success for regulatory reasons : it couldn't operate with its usual purchasing power model. I think the logistics equation could be very tricky for Amazon.

eBay is faring much better in Korea (as - it even wolfed down G-market, snatching it away from Inter Park... but eBay is more into auctions and C2C than into retailing and B2C. And when it advertised massively on internet shopping, big retailers pushed the pedal to the metal.

But the biggest revolution for e-commerce in Korea this year is the end of Microsoft Explorer's de facto monopoly since July 1st : since 1999, all online shopping and banking services had to use ActiveX systems, but the Financial Services Commission put an end to it following the recent boom in smartphones.

Seoul Village 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gwanghwamun Unveiled !!!

The metal structure is still there but all panes have been removed : for the first time in my life today, I see Gwanghwamun as it was meant to be.

Gwanghwamun is gracious - I realize how the concrete gate proudly erected decades ago to hide the Japanese Government building was far from the original.

The roof is slander and aerial, much closer to the palace buildings than to the Sadaemun (four city gates), and more in the elegant Changdeokgung line than the impressive Gyeongbokgung style. Gwanghwamun Square and Sejongno are now completed.

Fantastic news for Seoul. It was worth waiting... and even hurrying*.

Seoul Village 2010

* see "
Gwanghwamun restoration : too bballi bballi ?"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

KUAI 19 (Seoul)

Restaurants and shops come and go on Garosugil, but KUAI 19 has been here for relatively awhile because it's a good mix of location, food, atmosphere, and cost.

On the Eastern side of the "tree lined street", this Chinese restaurant is a bit closer to Shinsa Station than the other end. The building is not very old but has been smartly refreshed : a balcony focusing on plants instead of the non-existent view, layers of pink and purple paint enlivening bare walls and ceilings... you almost feel like in an old country house. Heck, the other day, between bright summer sun and a quick rain, I almost felt like in onet's home in Giverny ! Inside, it was rather like a bistro in old French Shanghai.

Following a classic formula for Chinese joints, the ground floor is for the take-out and the upper level one big room packing as many customers as possible (about fifty with a quite fast turnover). The room is rather narrow and long : noisy, but you're never far from a window giving on either the balcony or Garosu-gil.

Service is both efficient and friendly, including within the staff of youngsters (ie the closest girl dashes to help you, a boy instantly relieves her from her trays).

Food is more than OK : mainly noodles and mandus, with tasty classics (fried rice, jjajangmyeon, jangpong...), and some innovating twists and a fair price-quality ratio. Perfect for a quick lunch or a power snack.

KUAI 19 (restaurant)
Garosu-gil, 545-19 Shinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, ROK 135-889
Tel +82.2.511.8119 / +82.2.3444.7919 Fax +82.2.3444.7918

Seoul Village 2010

congdu (Seoul)

This restaurant used to be in Samcheong-dong but moved to Shinmunro, the market for upscale modern Korean food ("neo Korean cuisine" in congdu's own words) being probably bigger with all those big company headquarters around.

"congdu" means bean, so I was not surprised to get a refreshing cup of makgeolli with black bean and red ginseng, followed by an equally cool white bean gazpacho delicately enhanced with white ginseng. The summer program consists of 3 colorful* set menus with a Jeju flavor : many ingredients come from the Southern island, like those black pig feet cooked for 36 hours and served with (what else) beans, and the terrace room (view on the back of the museum, a quiet garden rearranged last year) hosts a temporary photo exhibition about a Jeju-do less sunny than usual but all the more beautiful.

By the way, you're in a museum, and
one I'm visiting quite often, and not only because I live almost next door. So why not enjoy the collections before or after a nice tofu steak ? But call them first : the other day, I tried to combine a dinner at congdu with the "1950 Seoul - 6.25 60th Anniversary Special Exhibition" and its sidekick ("A portrait of London", a photo exhibition co-organized with the Museum of London), but the central information desk was not aware that the whole restaurant had been reserved for the evening.

Don't expect this kind of mistake from congdu's staff : the service is really fine and adds to the very pleasant experience.

congdu f&c / congdu food & cuisine (restaurant)
Seoul Museum of History 1F, 50 Saemunan-gil, 2-1 Shinmunro-2-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK 110-230
Tel +82.2.722.7002

Seoul Village 2010

* the dishes as well as the menus (green, orange, and white)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Seoul Digital Media City Tour

I was looking forward for that one : a promotional tour of the DMC organized by its developers, Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Beyond each stop (DMC Gallery, Haneul Park, Nuritkum Square Digital Pavilion, DMCVille, DMC High Tech Business Center), I wanted the big picture and a general feeling : I knew the ambitions, and I saw the area change dramatically over the past few years, but could this Digital Media City fly ?

Even if it's only about halfway towards completion, the answer is yes : the DMC will be a success. For three good reasons : there's a consistent concept, there's a will from all key players, and compared to many Korean pharaonic projects, the progression seems sustainable. We'll know for sure later this year, when new railway connections are opened, and ground really broken for Seoul Lite, the landmark building.

In my mind, the DMC was a little bit like Songdo, an ambitious business oriented new town / pervasive computing utopia, but with a completely different scale and modus operandi :
- the World's most expensive private real estate development ever, Songdo, stretches over 6 million square meters, partly on a polder off Incheon, and is operated by Gale International and POSCO. The Songdo International Business District (IBD) has a strong trade and convention flavor, with the ambition to become a Northeast Asian hub, illustrated by the NEATT (NorthEast Asian Trade Tower) and the proximity to Incheon Airport. It's a brand new city targeting pioneers.
- the DMC covers "only" 570,000 square meter and is operated by Seoul city within the city limits, in Mapo-gu. It is meant to become the national cluster for media and entertainment industries. A significant portion of tenants are migrating from previous sub-clusters.

In spite of the global business climate, Songdo and the DMC are not competing against each other, but both expect completion in 2015, and both are supposed to inaugurate a landmark skyscraper that same year : the 151 Incheon Tower (151 floors, 601 m) in Songdo, the Seoul Lite (133 floors, 640 m - 540 without the antenna) in the DMC. Also, both present massive green lungs : a big central park in Songdo (bonus: a golf course), the World Cup Park in the DMC (bonus: the nearby World Cup Stadium itself).

Does size matter ? Definitely, but Songdo is a complete city built from scratch, and the DMC a city within a city, whose size and focus make things easier. For instance, Songdo boasts 80,000 apartments compared to 8,000 for the DMC (6,000 have been delivered, 2,000 will be later this year), but that's without taking into account major urban developments just a few hundred meters away : Susaek New Town in Eunpyeong-gu, Gajaeul New Town in Seodaemun-gu. Songdo boasts a Yonsei University branch and a foreign school and the DMC will "only" claim the Japan School in Seoul, but there are already many universities and foreign schools in a close distance.

In the DMC, if only half of the buildings have been completed, 82% of the land has been attributed and 42 of the 51 lots sold (this maps spots the place for sale in this big "T"). About 300 companies already moved in, creating 23,000 jobs (80,000 targeted by 2015) and for the moment, 43% are in IT, 38% in Media & Entertainment, and 13% in services. The M&E proportion is expected to rise with the arrival of the big fishes.

Because the business success is guaranteed. All the industry's major players have decided to join the party : TV broadcasters (KBS, SBS, YTN, MBC... ), press groups (DongA, Chosun Ilbo, Hankook Ilbo, Seoul Daily, JoongAng Ilbo...), entertainment majors (CJ E&M is already there...). If you wonder what "old" medias will do there, consider this : press groups are already internet giants, and recent changes in media regulations make possible (and more than probable) aggressive moves and further concentration into the broadcasting arena. No wonder IT and telecom companies are also taking positions : LG Telecom, LG CNS, Trumpf Korea, and Pantech are here, and many others are likely to eventually open a branch there.

Everything is done to nurture the whole media, entertainment, and IT convergence ecosystem :
- Seoul Metropolitan Government provides key enabling infrastructures : a DMC R&D Center (Business-University Collaboration Research Center), a DMC High-Tech Industry Center (low cost lease space), and DMC Ville (serviced residences for foreigners, with SH Corporation). Seoul Business Agency animates the ecosystem and facilitates the emergence of a strong DMC identity.
- the Korean Government also plays a role in the national cluster : the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism operates a Culture Content Center (Korea Creative Content Agency, Korean Film Archive) and a Digital Magic Space (Korea Creative Content Agency), the Ministry of Knowledge Economy the Nuritkum Square (the National IT Industry Promotion Agency, where visitors can experience the future of converging technologies).
- business federations joined the party : the Korea Electronics Association is moving in, and the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business operates a SME Global Center
- among other 'convergence' tenants : the Korea German Institute of Technology (KGIT), a digital game stadium, movie and animation studios, the Korea Film Museum...

Now what I saw yesterday was a city in the making, with people living, walking, eating in restaurants, enjoying the shade of the trees on the streets... very much ahead of other places under complete renovation because the business is already there, there's a clear purpose, and a clear roadmap for the next steps. This is not a new town, but a neighborhood with all the ingredients. The only thing is that the Northern half of the "Digital Media Street" - the curvy road in the bar of the "T" - is not yet constructed, which kind of creates a buffer zone of empty lots (the DMC's DMZ ?) between the center and the subway stations. The railways themselves are another frontier, and I hope something will be done to cover or bury them, for a seamless connection and better synergies between Sangam-dong and Susaek-dong. Even though, the DMC is a self-sustaining concept, and very well connected to Seoul and beyond.

3 train / subway stations serve this area :
- North : Susaek Station, Gyeongui Line (built in 1906 to link Seoul with Pyeongyang)
- East : World Cup Stadium Station, Line 6
- at the Northeast corner : DMC Station, the same two lines + AREX, the express line to Incheon and Gimpo airports. The AREX connection will be inaugurated by the end of 2010 : the trip to both airports will be even quicker, and the line will go up to Seoul Station.

The Southern frontier of the DMC is the World Cup Park : a green ocean which used to be the Nanjido landfill, a stinking disgrace completely metamorphosed ahead of the 2002 World Cup. One could almost talk about a Green Cluster now : first comes Najicheon Park, then the two hills of Noeul Park ("Sunset Park", West) and Haneul Park ("Sky Park", Center), plus the Pyounghwa Park (East, connected to the World Cup Stadium), and to the South, between the Gangbyeon Expressway and the Han river, the Nanji Hangang Park. Nanji meaning "orchild" and Nanji-do "orchild island", the name used to be a joke when the place was covered with garbage. But yesterday, at the top of Haneul Park, overlooking the DMC, the Stadium, the other side of the river, I could hardly believe how this previously forsaken place was blooming with nature.

The Mapo-gu I knew 20 years ago has dramatically changed, an industrial nightmare evolving into a greener and more service oriented district. Of course, many neighborhoods have always been charming and lively, but the "gu" long suffered from its key location as a logistics hub : a Western gate to the capital city, Mapo is a major entry point for ships (Mapo actually owes its name to a ferry crossing the Hangang), and a major axis for ground transports. The main road bordering the DMC, Susaekno, leads straight to Goyang to the West, and to Gwanghwamun to the East : on the way, it becomes Seongsanno (between Yonsei and Ehwa Universities), and then Sajikno, Yulgokno... City Hall is only 7 km away, Yeouido 5 km, and the nearby expressway provide shortcuts to Northeast Seoul (Naebu Expressway), and both sides of the Han river (ie Gangnam or the future Yongsan IBD via Gangbyeon Expressway).

Location, focus, purpose, strong political support... all key success factors are here. Over the next years, this new cluster might suck quite a few businesses from other parts of the city (ie Mok-dong for TVs, Yeouido for LG, downtown for press groups), but in Korea more than anywhere else, natures abhors a vacuum and one shouldn't worry for them*.
Seoul Village 2010

DMC's website :

* I'm being ironic here. New Towns are never a zero sum game.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Changdeokgung : from station to station to ashes to ashes

The other day*, I was not fully convinced by the final project of tunnel between Jongmyo and Changdeokgung : once more, priority was given to cars over public transports, pedestrians and bicycles. And instead of bringing two areas closer, it's as if a new mountain were erected to pull them further apart...

But yesterday, I was pleased to learn that, on the Western side of the tunnel, both gas stations facing Donhwamun (Changdeok Palace main gate) would be removed : until then, only one of the two (I didn't know which one - in Gwanhun-dong / West) or Unni-dong / East) was planned for destruction.

I already voiced my outrage to see the main entrance to a UNESCO World Heritage, Changdeokgung, be disgraced by those gas stations, but I was confident change would come : Jongno-gu intends to extend Insadong tourist area towards Jongmyo, reviving Donhwamun-gil and Sulla-gil on the way. And indeed, the place has dramatically evolved over the past few years, not always for the better : anticipating conservation laws, many Hanok owners replaced their traditional houses with modern structures more fit (to their eyes only of course) for business, ruining the atmosphere.

So it's decided now : the two gas stations will be destroyed in 2012, and the following year two new buildings will be inaugurated : a Royal Life History Digital Gallery (궁중생활사 디지털전시관), and a Traditional Art Hall (돈화문 국악예술당), likely to lure many tourists this side of Yulgokno. I hope the architecture will be more responsible and sustainable than recent tourist traps but anyway, it'll beat oil spills.

Seoul Village 2010

* see "
Jongno-gu renovation - continued"

Electric buses, Smart Chargers : Seoul is really getting serious

Last March, we mentioned a revolutionary technology tested by Seoul for its public transportation system ("KAIST unveils OLEV, the On-Line Electric Vehicle"). The capital city is also pushing aggressively more classic electric solutions : the first 15 electric buses will operate starting this November around Namsan, 34 during the first half of next year, and 3,800 by 2020, the rest of the fleet being converted to hybrid technologies.

The green color doesn't come as a surprise, but "more classic" doesn't mean "non innovative" : composite materials minimize the vehicle's weight, and batteries can be charged in only 20 mn for a 120 km ride (maximum speed : 100 km/h).

Seoul is also multiplying charging facilities for personal electric vehicles across the capital (government offices, large retailers) : from 41 to 130 by the end of this year !

Pilot payment systems (LG CNS solutions) are already tested in two Seoul City Hall annexes (Seosomun and Namsan) : car owners must register at the Seoul Metropolitan Government to enjoy Smart Chargers for free during the trial period.

Yeah, yeah, but as Germans know, electricity itself is not always clean. True, but city officials even prepared a preventive answer to that relevant claim : "even when considering greenhouse gases emitted by the power plant producing electricity, more than 40 tons of greenhouse gases can be reduced per bus in a year". And as we know, citizens will be able to measure the impacts (see "
Clean Air Seoul").

Seoul Village 2010

* "
Environment-friendly Electric Buses to Start Operation in Seoul"

Monday, July 5, 2010

Seoul Global Business Support Center

The Seoul Global Center recently opened its Seoul Global Business Support Center, a business gateway in a business hub (see "Find a name for SGC's new business center in COEX").

Beyond the COEX, a major exhibition / transport / trade / commercial center, Gangnam-gu boasts over 2,000 Foreign businesses, big and small. This new gateway, which also hosts 3 Foreign start-ups in an original incubation system, reaches for all Foreign businesspeople interested in Seoul, following the founding principles of the SGC : one-stop, free of charge services to help people enjoy a fuller life, but also to get their constant feedback on what could be done to improve business and daily life in the capital city.

Entrepreneurs can contact the center for free consultations, but also to get to know each other, share, suggest, create future opportunities.

Seoul Village 2010

Seoul Global Business Support Center :
How to get there : take the escalator up leading from Hall A on the first floor of the COEX to the second floor. The center is located at the east end of the Trade Mart (towards the east gate of COEX) on the 2nd floor of the COEX.

Business Hours : Monday to Friday 09:00~18:00
Contacts :
. Director of the Center - Tel: 02-6001-7243
. Consultations in English - Tel: 02-6001-7242
. Consultations in Chinese - Tel: 02-6001-7241
. Consultations in Japanese - Tel: 02-6001-7240
. Website :
. Seoul Global Center :

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