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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IKEA Korea

A couple of months ago, IKEA officials confirmed that South Korea was on their roadmap, but in the medium to long term (after Eastern Europe priorities). The Swedish company is already operating in the region (China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan), and of course, the Korea-Europe FTA could accelerate decisions for the Swedish retailer.

Meanwhile, some of its products are already on sale here, mainly items purchased in Chinese IKEA shops and shipped by resellers.

An unofficial store is even selling goods online and offline from Gyeonggi-do : DIY Korea shamelessly uses the URL, which is not only mentioning the brand, but also under a theoretically non commercial domain.

Competitors seem to be bracing for the inevitable arrival of IKEA : Hanssem has considerably improved its marketing, merchandising, and logistics skills, and such retailers as CASA Korea contributed to the westernization of Korean interiors.

If the Korean market is not mature enough for the category killer, that's changing and quickly. New and fully equipped apartment complexes are losing ground to remodeling operations and more individual initiatives. And if it's still hard to compete with small 'gagu' manufacturers who can build and install custom furnitures at a very low price, DIY or gardening are on the rise (including at Tesco's and Costco's, who also seem to be leveraging on the growing expat communities and individual entrepreneurs to extend their DIY / gardening sections).

As always, when a major franchise reaches Korean shores, there's a mixed feeling, and the hope that, in spite of the loss, creativity will be spurred.

Seoul Village 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

Seoul Through Pictures 6

The sixth volume of the adventures of Seoul is now available : "Seoul Through Pictures 6 : Globalizing Seoul (1981-1990)"* covers the transition towards democracy, the Olympic moment, and the acceleration of urban carnage (commoditization of tombstone apt complexes).

Of course, most pictures have no artistic value whatsoever** - the concept is to keep track of urban and social changes across Seoul. The City History Compilation Committee of Seoul launched this unprecedented public initiative in the early 2000s, and soon afterwards, local authorities started to understand the value of photography (ie focus on Cheonggyecheon history, or a comprehensive photo program across all city districts, both under Mayor LEE Myung-bak...).

The series is getting livelier and more consistent with each new volume. And the next issue will cover the Seoul I first met 20 years ago. I really regret not buying the first volume ("Seoul Through Pictures 1: The Modernization of Seoul and its Trials (1876-1910)) when I had the opportunity. Back then I quickly browsed through the pages and recognized too many pictures I'd already seen... Now it's too late : impossible to find a copy.

Personal message : if anyone has a spare copy of that Volume 1, I'd be very interested in purchasing it.

Among my favorite picture books about Korea is a special edition celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1948 constitution : much less carefully edited than the Seoul in Pictures series but nonetheless very instructive, precisely because of its political biases. The ads are also fun to watch because all the chaebols start communicating to international audiences. The one featuring the first Kia assembly lines tells a lot of the ground covered over the past 40 years...

Seoul Village 2011

* you can order it online at
Seoul Selection.
** if you want to be touched by great Korean photographers, try Kim Gi-chan or Choi Min-sik.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

DMC aims at Tinseltown - welcome to Hallyuwood !

In L.A., ex-Gobernator Schwarzie is willing to get back to the studios. In Seoul, the D.M.C. is flexing its own muscles, aiming at global stardom in the movie industry.

We've already seen how committed the city is to transforming this former foresaken area into the country's media mecca ("
Seoul Digital Media City tour"). The next steps are already considered and by 2014, the DMC wants to become Asia's Hollywood (or rather Hallyuwood). OH Se-hoon obviously made the most of his recent trip in Los Angeles, where Seoul also signed a MOU for green development (BTW electric vehicles and OLEV technology will also be implemented in the DMC).

KRW 170 bn will be injected into this second phase, adding to the already ambitious master plan (570,000 sqm) the space liberated by an oil storage complex (35,000 sqm) and a driver's license test site (65,000 sqm). If you take
the map of our previous focus, the "T" of the DMC will turn into some kind of a fat "M" with the test site under the Western bar (at the corner of Guryongro and Namjido-gil), and the oil complex under the Eastern bar (at the corner of Namjido-gil and Jeungsanro, facing the World Cup Stadium).

The driver's license test center will be transformed into "Seoul Culture Contents Center", some kind of a Universal Studio Seoul urban thema park with a strong focus on virtual reality and 3D. By 2013, DMC 2.0 will boast the world's largest CG complex and propose the complete value chain to movie makers : the capital is already becoming an international magnet but until now, the DMC was more specialized into pre-prod than post-production. Beyond new infrastructures for the whole movie / multimedia industries, Seoul wants to build the equivalent to LA Live, the huge complex operated by AEG on West Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, complete with residences, hotels, and a shopping center. Of course, spas are also in the program.

Decades after deserting Chungmuro for Gangnam, Korea's movie stars could be moving back in greater numbers to the other side of the Han river.

Seoul Village 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sinchon reloaded - Sinchon Global Zone

Sinchon area has it all, but clearly lacks some consistency. As local authorities unveil a new KRW 7.5 bn plan to redesign it, it seems high time to get the big picture and to make sure they'll get it right.

1) Sinchon can leverage on unique assets...

- Korea's biggest education hub, with Yonsei University (N), Hongik University (W), Ewha University (NE), and Seogang University (S) within a very short radius, and Myeongji University (NW) not much further afield. If Edae and Hongdae areas have stronger personnalities because they are more clearly defined around one "major" (Ehwa being a women's university and Hongik specialized in creative studies), Sinchon is a more central and neutral "battlefield", and less dominated by Yonsei.

- A strategic crossroads connected with major business hubs (downtown, Yongsan, Yeouido, and the
DMC) - Sinchon Rotary, at the intersection between Changcheon-dong, Donggyo-dong, and Nogosan-dong :
. Sinchon-ro : Eastwards towards Seodaemun and downtown, and Westwards towards Seogang Bridge / Yeouido or Sangam / DMC.
. Yonsei-ro : Northwards towards the University and Seongsandae-ro
. Seogang-ro : Southwards towards Yongsan via Gongdeok

2) ... but structural problems need to be fixed...

- Two strategic stations (on Subway Line 2 and Gyeonghui Line, Seoul's oldest railway station) share the same name "Sinchon Station" with entrances less than 500 m apart, but they are not even connected...

- Sinchon Rotary is as lamely designed for humans as it is for vehicles, and the dialogue between its Northern and Southern halves more than poor. Unsurprisingly, they belong to different districts (respectively Seodaemun-gu and Mapo-gu). It's not a total train wreck, but you can feel the wasted space and unoptimized urbanism.

- Yonsei-ro is often saturated : the only passage under the railway, in front of Yonsei's main gate, creates a massive bottleneck, particularly since on the other side, the gigantic mass of the university and Ansan offers no alternative to Seongsandae-ro, a major West-East axis supporting the bulk of Seoul's boom in its Northwestern quarter.

3) ... and if major changes have been initiated...

- Local authorities intend to transform Sinchon into a cultural/education/commerce hub. The masterplan centers on Nogosan-dong, Mapo-gu (280,000 sqm) and Daehyeon-dong, Seodaemun-gu (750,000 sqm), stretching all the way to the mouth of Yeonhui-ro. It seems to interconnect more seamlessly Sinchon with Hongdae and Ewha :

- Sinchon lies at the center of the Light Railway Transit system that will connect, by 2017-2018, Unpyeong-gu with Seodaemun-gu, Mapo-gu, and Yeongdeungpo-gu (see "
Subway news : Sillim line, Line 3..."). I presume local authorities will merge this third Sinchon Station with the two existing ones - if not, something is rotten in the state of Seoul !

4) ... local authorities must reach even further... and out to each other

- Speaking of a education, commerce and culture hub is one thing, succeeding another one. You don't stimulate culture by decree, and Sinchon needs more than a new landmark or some cosmetic changes on one existing street. Solutions should fluidify the whole neighborhood. Local services and commerces also need a boost : even with the Hyundai Department Store / Uplex and Sinchon Migliore / Sinchon Station complex, the area doesn't really reaches its full potential. It even lags behind Hongdae in the eateries' department.

- Mapo-gu and Seodaemun-gu need to work closely together, to share the same strategic vision, and to communicate consistently. We already had a similar, but more Seodaemun-gu-centered, project exactly one year ago featuring Sinchon as a "University-based Tourism City" ("대학기반 관광 도시"):

- This new masterplan also falls short of tackling the Yonsei-ro bottleneck issue. Ideally, the Gyeonghui Line should be buried and covered with a park, just like the nearby Yongsan Line (at Yeonnam-dong).

To be continued...
Seoul Village 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

Impressions papier hanji

Atelier des Cahiers publishes an anthology of 10 French-Korean short stories about Korea : four female Korean authors and six male French authors... including yours truly*.

Impressions papier hanji - Dix nouvelles franco-coréennes
Editions Atelier des Cahiers 2010 - Collection Littératures
ISBN 978-2-9529286-4-9
303 pages - 15.000 wons / 12 euros
. Alain ROBBE-GRILLET ("Mon double coréen")
. KIM Da-eun ("Madame")
. Antoine COPPOLA ("La véritable histoire de Li Jin et de son horrible sacrifice")
. CHOI Myeong-jeong ("Pojangmacha")
. Eric SZCZUREK ("La joueuse de Baduk")
. Stéphane MOT ("de Vermis Seoulis")
. KIM Ae-ran ("Le couteau de ma mère")
. François LAUT ("Jours d'après")
. EUN Hee-kyung ("La voleuse de fraises")
. Michel LOUYOT ("Le poète sans nom")

More on this later in these pages.

Stephane - Seoul Village 2011
NB: read the French version of this post on blogules VF

* 'de Vermis Seoulis' was previously published in my personal anthology - dragedies

ADDENDUM 20110304

To purchase / order this book, see the editor's website ( : list of points of sale in Seoul and Paris, order online via Paypal...

ADDENDUM 20120808

Now available for Kindle on and

Sungwoo Barbershop, Malli-dong Market

Nice surprise this morning in the Korea JoongAng Daily : an article* about Seoul's cutest barbershop, Sungwoo Iyongwon.

I can't help but take a few pictures each time I pass by this incredible building : a two century old house with a stone stoop and wooden frames that obviously invite drafts in more than it keeps them out. The structure always seems on the verge of collapsing but in a smiling way, not menacing at all.
This is typically the kind of landmarks that ought to be protected but may soon disappear. A massive redevelopment is under way on this hilly area behind Seoul Station, and I visited Seogye-dong / Cheongpa-dong several times before the evacuation. Towards the end, only a few workshops with illegal foreign workers subsided before moving to another cheap destination, the sound of their sewing machines breaking the grey silence. Always this weird feeling of walking through a ghost town.

Even if Sungwoo barbershop is on the other side of this hill's thin backbone, Manlishijang-gil**, it doesn't mean that it will be spared : it's already surrounded by modern "villas", and very close to a street which I'm afraid shall be enlarged sooner or later, particularly near Manli Market, where it draws a charming curve.

Here, at the top of the triangle drawn between Seoul Station, Gongdeok Station and Samgakji Station, three gus converge : Mapo-gu to the West, Jung-gu to the North, and Yongsan-gu to the South. The full name of the market is Manli-dong Market, but it lies in Yongsan-gu and Manli-dong in Mapo-gu (on the other side of Manlijae-gil - which I guess must now be named Manlijaero). The barbershop itself may sit in a Mapo-gu enclave that includes part of the street.

Privately owned, Manli-dong Market will soon be destroyed and replaced - if it's not already been done ; I haven't been there for over a year. That's a rather depressing and ugly two level concrete bar, but from the second floor you have a very picturesque view on this lively street with ajumas chatting and preparing vegetables and once again, the curve and slope of the street create a unique setting. On the other side of the building, you still can (could ?) see a few hanoks, including a quite big one with fine wooden carvings, but also with a roof in very poor shape.

I'm glad a national newspaper decided to publish a focus on this foresaken place and on the people who keep it alive. Sungwoo's hairdresser is already 62, and he can't save this small Seoul village all by himself.

Seoul Village 2011

* "
A barbershop that's a cut above the rest"
** The first time I passed by Sungwoo Iyongsil, I came all the way down Manlishijang-gil from Hyochang Park, a destination by itself with Kim Gu / Baekbeom's tomb or Hyochang Stadium (Hyochang Park Station - Line 6).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yongsan park - fake forests and real estates

Korea's Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs unveiled yesterday* its master plan for the future Yongsan Park (to replace Yongsan US Army Base).

Base case scenario used to be 2017 but now, the first temporary parks are announced for as early as 2015... and completion for as late as 2025.

The shape didn't change : as scheduled, the park is connected to Namsan at the Northeastern end, the National Museum of Korea cuts a big rectangle at the Southern end, and the Western side is bitten by existing para-military infrastructures (the War Memorial of Korea and the Korean army's buddhist temple near Sinyongsan). The park is split into 6 thematic areas using the usual catch phrases : "U-Eco", "International Culture"...

Obviously, a quick and dirty draft to be updated later. Because the park itself is only a detail, an environmental joke, a mere alibi for what basically represent one of the biggest real estate operations of this young millenium : clearly, what all homeowners around and all developpers nationwide were waiting for were construction guidelines around Seoul's next Central Park.

And the answer came quite clearly : more than 40 stories on average, with up to 50-storey buildings in the Western enclave. The poorly designed Park Towers already overlooking the National Museum will not feel alone anymore... Definitely good news for Yongsan promoters after series of unfortunate events : Yongsan IBD was delayed by stops and go's, one person died resisting to a nearby redevelopment, and further afield costs exploded after the discovery of pollutants in the soil. Note that a similar gift was recently awarded to Apgujeong tenants : whatever the real estate macro-scenario, 50 storey giants will ensure fat profits in that very expensive area - nevermind touching environmental speeches about the Hangang Renaissance...

Frankly, I didn't expect less from a buldozer-friendly government that already authorized universities to build higher on Seoul's last protected mountains, and agressively sacrificed big chunks of the capital's last greenbelt areas.

At least, let's hope the park itself will be an environmental success.

Seoul Village 2011

* see for instance "
남산과 한강 사이… 여의도 크기 서울 용산공원 청사진" (Chosun Ilbo 20110211)

NK 4.0 ? KIM Jon-il's latest son is only 7

An ailing dictatorship, a corrupt regime artificially maintained by a military mafia, no respect of human rights whatsoever, and now a seventh kid from a fourth wife (Kim OK)*... KIM Jong-il seems to be competing with old style Arab dictators.

But North Korea is neither a Middle Eastern nation, nor even Tunisia or Egypt. And if the internet ban technically prevents a 2.0 revolution in Korea, any uprising would probably trigger a more direct intervention by China. Maybe not as radical as the 2009 repression in Iran, but pervasive containment would remain the general concept.

Seoul Village 2011

* "
Kim Jong-il 'Has 7-Year-Old Son'" (Chosun Ilbo)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Seoul Art Space Yeonhui

Inaugurated late 2009, Seoul's first writers residency has already become the ultimate destination for Korean writers, but Seoul Art Space Yeonhui also welcomes a few foreigners. And in this quiet oasis at the heart of the city, literature almost becomes a performing art.

Of course, writing is a solitary process that doesn't require much more than a pen and some paper... or the more or less modern equivalent (from ye olde Underwood typewriter to your latest digital tablet gizmo). But as every writer knows, it does take a little bit more than that, and your direct environment is of the essence. If some need to feel some animation around (exhibit A: the cliche of a chain smoking coffee guzzling weirdo scrawling over the table of a Parisian cafe), most long for quietness and peace (exhibit B: the cliche of a zen caligrapher in a traditional house on a remote island). Writers being humans, they ideally require a certain mix of privacy and social interactions, and writers residencies focus on this fragile comfort zone, providing as a bonus social interactions with fellow scribblers sharing the same delicate moment.

Seoul Art Space Yeonhui reaches beyond the usual hosting services to writers*, from supporting literary activities to international networking. Furthermore, the site is open to everyone and gives all Seoulites a unique opportunity to attend public lectures, or simply to enjoy a stroll in a charming site. After all, literature doesn't belong to anyone but to everybody, and this is a public initiative. Like other Seoul Art Space / artists residencies**, Yeonhui center is operated by the SFAC : the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture are also in charge of such events as the Hi Seoul Festival, and their aim is to make Seoul a creative cultural city by leading all citizens to participate in arts.

Giving a cultural purpose to abandoned sites lies at the root of the Seoul Art Space concept, and this one used to host the City Story Compilation Committee of Seoul but hadn't been used for half a decade. So when the metropolitan government considered selling the place, SFAC had the good idea to transform it into a "literary nest".

During my visit yesterday in this "literary nest", under a bright sun and between two subzero cold waves, many birds were singing. I mean literally - I did meet a couple of creative residents but here, on the top of a small hill overlooking Yeonhui-dong, you do hear birds sing : no traffic noise, and you quickly forget that you're in the middle of an hyperactive megalopolis.

You're welcomed by a metal gate composed with Korean alphabet (definitely more zen than Elvis' Graceland) and a wall of fame with the handprints of famous contemporary Korean authors, but your eyes are immediately attracted to the peaceful setting : four low rise buildings surrounded by pine trees, a winding path following a gentle slope with mountain tops in every directions, a cute outdoor theater to give or listen to lectures from writers who sometimes turn into actual performers... The ideal nest indeed, complete with a Literary Media Lab and even an Artists' Playground.

At least in Seoul, being an author is not always a curse.

Seoul Art Space Yeonhui
203-1 Yeonhui-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul
Tel: +82.2.324.4622, +82.2.324.4600
Business hours : from 10 AM to 5 PM Monday to Friday (closed on New Year's Day, Lunar New Year's Day, Thanksgiving)
ADDENDUM 20110211 - 2 more SAS Yeonhui links :
. Facebook page :
. on Twitter : @yeonhui1105

Seoul Village 2011

* Poets, novelists, playwrights, literary critics, translators of Korean literature, authors of children's books may apply, generally for one to three months (ideal for a book leave). They must use their private writing studio at least 15 days a month. Note that the fees are very low: 5,500 won per 3.3m2 (VAT included) for a writing studio. More about residency applications
on the website.
** others centers are more devoted to plastic or performing arts: Seogyo (Hongdae, experimental arts), Geumcheon (multi-art projects), Sindang (creative arcade, studio, crafts), Gwanak (children playground), Seongbuk (art therapy and creativity), Mullae (arts village inaugurated last week, performance), Hongeun (eco friendly) - see all Seoul Art Spaces :

Sunday, February 6, 2011

New subway cars for lines 5678

Following public trials last December, Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation (SMRT) are recruiting testers for their brand new cars (this month at Jangam station, line 7).

Model SR001 is to be progressively rolled out across the four lines they operate (5-6-7-8).

Its most striking feature ? the central bench system : instead of hanging up at the mercy of sudden brakings, people standing up can rest against vertical cushioned bars. Others can toy with interactive touch screeens (5678 Happy Touch). Bonus: people sitting in the middle can conveniently share with more neighbors whatever they see fit (snores, phone conversations, hair parasites...).

Meanwhile, the driver can focus on driving while operators remotely monitor air con and CCTVs, control CO2 emission levels and air quality, check the total weight of passengers on a given car (HVAC system)...

So Big Brother will instantly know when and where the national sumo team boarded, and if they had gongnameul for lunch.

Seoul Village 2011

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