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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Climate Change in Korea

After a two day break, monsoon is back. But the monsoon season is supposed to be over, and those record breaking downpours that are drowning Korea and killing dozens raise again the issue of climate change.

In this country, everything moves 빨리 빨리. Even the weather. Korea has already experienced dramatic changes over the past 100 years : average temperatures have gained 1.8 degrees celcius, winters are 2 to 3 weeks shorter and summers 2 to 3 weeks longer, Jeju-do has become a semi-tropical island, and extreme years have multiplied since 1991.

Over the past 20 years, I did experience extreme episodes firsthand, mostly typhoons or flash floods transforming streets into rapids*, or the staircases of a downtown subway station into mini-Niagara falls. But I never saw the Hangang completely frozen, except on pictures from the 50s. And I've had my share of fantastic years with mild winters and pleasant summers.

We already knew Korea was at some kind of frontier, and thus more likely to major changes : if Vladivostock is not far away, its harbor is often caught in ice during the winter, unlike those of the whole peninsula (even if the North, more mountainous, usually faces tougher winters than the South). That's one of the reasons why the federation invested in the Rajin-Sonbong Economic Special Zone in North Korea (Rason / Raseon logistic hub).

Ironically, as they pressed for more food relief, Pyeongyang propagandists forged just a few days ago a photo showing floods that didn't exist... Photoshop doesn't seem that necessary now. Images from the South are also hard to believe, but they are unfortunately true : the tragic landslides in Chuncheon or Umyeongsan**, cars crushed or drowned like toys...

Water's power of destruction showed no mercy for such wealthy areas as Daechi-dong (Gangnam-gu) or Bangbae-dong (Seocho-gu), but miraculously spared Seoul's fragile "moon villages" (generally close to mountain tops). Among the Umyeong-dong victims of the landslide, the wife of Shinsegae's chairman died in her own cellar. And another mudslide hit Ihwajang, the former home of President Syngman Rhee in Hyehwa-dong. Mobile networks went down at the heart of Gangnam, home to the new Samsung HQs and Teheran-ro start ups.

The powers that be have all been humbled and forced to reconsider their scenarii, up to the plans they had updated last year. Seoul and Korea will adapt once more, and one can hope today's tragedies will foster positive changes in urbanism and environment.

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* like last Chuseok (see "
Chusoaked"), or my wet dog moment in 2008 (see "open air pool")
** Seoul Arts Center was hit, but Cezanne & co ("
Musee d'Orsay in Seoul") are safe, but there too, many people died.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Daegu 2011 IAAF World Championships

Usain Bolt and Oscar Pistorius are expected to run in Daegu Stadium this summer for the 13th World Championships in Athletics.

Since both athletes have been enjoying enhanced performances for years, let's hope Korea will be spared another Ben Johnson moment ahead of the London 2012 olympics. If anti-doping officials share their hairdos with Sarbi the mascot, the Jamaican and the South African don't risk much : this Sapsal dog sports a colorful mop that completely cover its eyes...

Let's hope competitions can be both spectacular and fair. This stadium deserves more animation than the struggling Daegu FC can provide in the K-League (BTW Korea's pro soccer league is experiencing its worst year ever, plagued by a pervasive game fixing scandal).

Except in marathon, Koreans don't have a strong tradition in athletics, but they are now a top tier power in world sports. Daegu was selected in 2007 ahead of tough competitors : Brisbane and Moscow, who will organize the 2013 edition. Note that just like in Olympics with Seoul 1988 or Pyeongchang 2018*, Korea is again the first Asian country to claim major sports events after Japan (except Formula One**, where petrodollars came first). And regarding the tie in soccer, we all remember how the 2002 FIFA World Cup was split between both rivals to prevent one tragic loss of face.

Anyway, it is very positive for Korea to put "new" cities on the global map : this country is certainly not just only about Seoul***, and Daegu or Pyeongchang reached the global sports stage even before Busan (yes, Korea's second biggest city did organize Asian Games, but that's a regional event and it was held in 2002, in the shadow of the World Cup).


13th IAAF World Championships Daegu 2011
'Sprint together for tomorrow'
website :

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* Pyeongchang (
) won logically as the best candidate... even if the bidding team looked more than suspicious (see "
Pyeongchang 2018 vs Sejong City 2010 ?").
** see last year : "
Yeongam-gun braces for inaugural Formula One Grand Prix"
*** again, for such a big capital, even a G20 Summit is a non-event : "
G20 Seoul Summit 2010"

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Berlin Wall, Seoul Section(s)

If you've passed by the Eastern / Wangsimni section of Cheonggyecheon, you've probably seen the ruins of three concrete pilars, a reminder of the ugly overpass that used to cover the stream before its restoration. But did you know that further Westwards, the remains of three sections of the Berlin Wall have been also installed outdoors a couple of years ago ?

About 2.5 m tall, the structure and its graffitis, guarded by a colorful bear sculpture, lie next to Samilgyo, the bridge where Samil-ro passes over Cheonggyecheon (Janggyo-dong, Jung-gu).

Don't start looking for a Haechi guarding Seoul fortress sections in Berlin : that's a one-way operation, and sections of the doomed wall can be found in many other cities worldwide, though seldom in the region (ie Taipei, Singapore).

Don't start looking for rich symbols either, even if somehow the installation celebrates the reconciliation of Korea's capital with itself. More trivially, the spot is now known as Berlin Plaza.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jinju Hoegwan (Seoul)

If kongguksu is a very refreshing dish for the summer, this one almost tastes like "creme anglaise", the vanilla cream you pour on your fondant au chocolat. In other words : yummy.

Don't waste your time and money ordering the local seokeo jjigae (섞어찌게), a dull sort of budae jjigae. Jinju Hoegwan is a well known institution in this small cluster of eateries at the feet of downtown towers, at the exit 9 of City Hall station. But the place is full even on Sundays.

Jinju Hoegwan / 진주회관 (restaurant)
120-35 Seosomun-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel: +82.2.753.5388

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Joseph Beuys - The Multiples in Seoul (SOMA Museum of Art)

Seoul Olympic Art Museum welcomes a collection of "Multiples" by the late German artist Joseph Beuys : works on various media from the mid 60s to the mid 80s, and from the Bild-Kunst museum of Bonn.

Frankly, I prefer his installations, or even better : installations from Louise Bourgeois, whose story sounds a bit more sincere than the alleged wrapping (in felt and animal fat) of Beuys by Tatar nomads.

Anyway, the visit is supposed to be a walk in the park. The Olympic Park, of course.

JOSEPH BEUYS - The MultiplesJune 16 - August 28, 2011
SOMA Museum of Art (Seoul Olympic Art Museum) -
88-2 Bangi-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel +82.2.452.1077

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Dream Bridge to nowhere?

According to DongA Ilbo ("Building a landmark pedestrian bridge" - 20110720), Seoul authorities want to link Apgujeong with Seoul Forest via a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Han river.

Seongsu-dong (Seongdong-gu) and Apgujeong-dong (Gangnam-gu) are already connected through the Seongsu Bridge, but this doomed structure (it collapsed in 1994) was rebuilt at a time when humans and bicycles were not priorities. Hangang riversides have since grown parks and bike lanes, and prolonging the Jungnangcheon riversides to the South makes sense... but the operation looks like yet another gift from City Hall to Gangnam speculators.

Apgujeong marked the triumph of the 'apateu' model: the Park Chung-hee government partly sponsored the moving of part of the country's elite to the newly erected apartment blocks fourty years ago, and all of a sudden the general public, unaware of the trick, reconsidered apartment blocks as a symbol of success. Before, people saw them as soulless dwellings for the masses. The trick also radically changed the image of Gangnam, a land recently claimed over rice paddies that Gangbuk elites despised. After that, all 'nouveaux riches' started to migrate South, and all Seoulites to embrace the 'apateu' system.

Even now, Apgujeong-dong remains the epitome of Gangnam bling. Commoners, who already found it hard to swallow that these blocks had more or less privatized the accesses to Hangang riversides, reacted vehemently when the city authorized the replacement of this old generation of apartments with 50-story-high blocks (the only way owners could expect fat profits from the sale of their already bubble-blown properties). Now this: a KRW 100 bn bridge financed 50% by the city and 50% by the same local residents?

I don't see this "Dream Bridge" being built, unless there's a radical change in Apgujeong-dong redevelopment plans:
- covering Olympic Expressway
- opening the new and improved waterfront to bikes and pedestrians from all sides
- public infrastructures and mixed use of land instead of a high end residential ghetto

More likely, Seoul will find a compromise and ask for big concessions from land owners if they want to grow higher than 30 stories.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011


Obviously, I wasn't the only visitor disappointed by last year's edition of the Asian Students and Young Artists Art Festival, a complete dud compared to the previous one*.

The concept remains basically the same (works from 777 young artists from Korea and the rest of Asia on display and for sale), but organizers said a couple of months ago that this year, they would be more careful for the selection. Significantly, after Sungshin Women's University, they chose a venue more symbolic of Korean promising creative talents : Hongik University.

As usual, the Asian Students and Young Artists Art Festival will be split in two periods (July 27 - August 7 / August 10 - 22), with a break in between to change all the art works. Two good occasions to visit the HOMA (Hongik Museum of Art - Hongik University Hyundai Museum of Art).

I'll keep you posted after my raids so check for updates.

July 27 - August 22, 2011
Hongik Museum of Art / HOMA
Pavillion Hongmungwan 1, 2F,
Hongik University, Sangsu-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, ROK 121-791

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* see "
ASYAAF 2010", ASYAAF 2009.

It's raining

A textbook Korean summer if I ever saw one : first the rain, then the heat... after weeks of continuous downpour, the sun is starting its merciless hitting streak, batting a steady 30°C+ for as far as forecasters can see.

But even at the driest peak of the season, soccer players will keep warning me of rain coming : "Bi onda ! Bi onda !" (비온다) is the - very - informal way of saying it's raining, but also a widespread way of alerting a teammate that opponents are coming from behind to try and steal the ball from him.

Korean language can be highly poetic under any circumstances. And very refreshing.

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NB: note that suspensions are still raining on Korean soccer : over 10% of all K-League players have been already involded in a massive fixed games scandal.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tongin market opens up to art : adaptation or yet another symptom of Seochon's "Bukchonization" ?

I often talk about Seoul's traditional markets as key cultural assets : the souls of Seoul villages, but tormented souls, often on the verge of extinction, and surviving only thanks to a few ageing customers and struggling producers.

If many markets keep a vibrant atmosphere, some can be quite depressing. I remember Sanggye Central Market (Sanggye Jungang Shijang) during its last years : inside, an old, dark, and mostly empty space with a low ceiling and miserable stands - but in the streets around the building, still a vibrant village atmosphere. Now instead of the large low rise hall there's a massive I-Park, and the streets look at the same time cleaner but less lively.

Even some relatively big markets look grim. Take Inwang Market, for instance : located at a major crossroads (Hongje-dong, Seodaemun-gu) and serving a relatively large population, this factory looking concrete mass, next to the derelict Yujin Arcade and the ugly Naebu Expressway, is not exactly inviting. Of course, visiting it is always an intense experience for me, beyond the nice pictures and that small place where they cook delicious handmade noodles. But the traffic is not as good as it should be, and obviously everybody struggles to make ends meet. Many people would like to come more often, but the place almost acts as a repellent even to old timers, and some go to much further traditional markets because they are more fun. Money will be invested here, and Yugin Sanga be destroyed to make room for a multiservice complex, but will Hongje modernize the market or replace it with a soulless shopping center ? This choice will be essential for the very identity of a strategic hub.

I'm not in favor of aggressive therapy to maintain markets when there's no potential, but I don't think it is right to destroy the ones that are still successful. I already mentioned Yeongcheon Market* as a potential collateral damage of urban redevelopment (its Eastern end is threatened by future towers). The traffic is good, the location great, the quality of the products much better than in most markets, and the dimensions perfect : here's a small but sustainable traditional market that enlivens the area. The buildings and its direct surroundings are in poor shape, but with a limited investment, this animated covered path can become an attraction coupled with the visit of Independence Gate, without losing its soul. Why not preserve a small triangle of real Seoul right in front of the soon to be erected Dongnimmun New Town ?

Like Yeongcheon Market, Tongin Market is basically a narrow street** whose roof and shops have been upgraded over the past few years without really revolutionizing the area. Much smaller than Yeongchan, Tongin doesn't claim as many visitors, and there's not the same feeling of abundance, but there's no other traditional market miles around except Geumcheon Market, and losing it could undermine the city's dream of saving Seochon.

Full of life and small eateries and very close to Gyeonbokkung Station, Geumcheon Market, on Geumcheon Bridge street (Geumcheondari-gil / 금천다리길, the small Chebu-dong street parallel to Sajikno), is rather an open air commercial street than a formal market. Seoul should be very careful about that one too, but Tongin Market is a real market place with a roof at the center of the soon to be revived Seochon.

I've often mentioned Seoul's plans to resuscitate this historical hotspot West of the Gyeonbokgung by protecting hanoks (see "
Stop The Hanok Genocide... And Stop Revival As Reenactment") or reopening an old stream (see "Baekundongcheon / Gwanghwamun-gil - A River Runs Through It"), as well as my worries about the risks of a "Bukchonization" for Seochon : on one hand you save a hanok cluster and create a popular touristic attraction full of cute boutiques, but on the other, this is not a real Seoul village anymore, just a gentrified area for wealthy people or guest houses, where daily life is not going on as normal. Hopefully, even if Seochon has evolved dramatically recently, it remains much better 'preserved' than Bukchon at the social level.

Tongin Market has a key role to play in the future at the heart of vernacular Seochon, particularly since Baekundongcheon renovation will not go all the way up along Jahamungil (the stream's original path), but take the diagonal across Tongin-dong and Chebu-dong instead, following a minor affluent, now the charming and winding street that leads to the small triangular plaza at the Western end of the market.

Can Tongin Market be saved ? It probably has to evolve, and I often imagined it, in a "boboization"**** scenario of Seochon's Western half, as some sort of a mini Camden market : small, vintage shops, but more indy than trendy. So I was not that much surprised to see the place opening up to amateur, arty installations.

It turns out that the Tongin Market Project is sponsored by local authorities as part of a much wider scheme : an article about it in today's Korea JoongAng Daily ("
Traditional markets remade in public art project") actually triggered this post.

Mercifully, this project is heralding proximity between the population and market shop owners, not turning the place into some pretentious art gallery. But change is definitely on the way.

I guess in the future most markets will have lost their original purpose, sometimes reclaiming it for an event. A market is both a meeting space and a meeting time, not necessarily permanent. Paris is sponsoring local markets so that every neighborhood can enjoy a traditional market once or twice a week on the street, and I guess that's what's coming for Seoul as well.

As for the buildings themselves, their souls, or life in Seoul villages, that's another story.

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* and its excellent ddeokbokki "
Wonjo Ddeokbokki - a.k.a. "Ddeoknimmun" (Seoul)"
** Tonginshijang-gil, between Pilundae-gil and Jahamun-gil (now Jahamundae-ro). A strategic part of vernacular Seochon, along with the Ogin-gil diagonal.
*** don't underestimate the place, though. For instance, that's where you'll find the best kimbab in Seochon.
**** "bobo" standing for the "bourgeois bohemians" sociostyle defined by David Brooks a decade ago.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Seoul free school lunch referendum (continued)

Confirming a clear political divide over a more than symbolic issue, The Hankyoreh, Korea's main liberal daily newspaper, wants to "End Mayor Oh's free school lunch referendum".

I've already mentioned this debate*, but I'll make my position even clearer at a personal level :

- I think Seoul's Mayor is right to promote a welfare society over welfare populism, and that's truly what this free school lunch issue is all about. No : free lunch for all is no more sustainable than free healthcare for all. And yes : it is fair for the wealthiest to pay for the poorest. That's the way welfare states usually work, and in France, the ones favoring that concept over free school lunches are more often liberal than conservative leaning. I'm not sure the conservative groups that collected signatures for the referendum** are aware of that evidence (ditto for the liberal lobbies denouncing the motion as unjust).

- I don't think Oh Se-hoon is helping his case by pushing at the same time for
more controversial projects, and I'm glad some of them didn't make the cut under the new municipal majority***.

- I'm not in favor of a referendum, but it seems the only way to make a necessary change. Very risky for OH (presidential future at stake), this vote is more the consequence of a sterile war within the City Council. I agree with The Hankyoreh about the "national governance" issue, but no debate seems possible here, and the same can be said at the national level. This is not a us-vs-them, black-and-white world, and politicians should be able to support a cause they deem just, even if it comes from the other side, or denounce a bad project even if it's the dream of a leader they respect. Beyond school systems, Korean politics need to change.

- I was pleased to see both OH Se-hoon re-elected as Seoul Mayor and KWAK No-hyun elected as Seoul Education Superintendent because both sides were represented. But I did wish for a better mutual understanding, leveraging on common ground and values across party lines****.

- The whole situation is absurd. What Korea needs is a better coverage for healthcare and a fairer educational system, challenges for which I'm sure OH and KWAK can fight on the same side. Ideally, both parties should convene and find a solution before the referendum, but if it were to be staged, people in favor of social justice, regardless of their political color, should vote against free school lunches for all.

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* see "
Seoul-Incheon canal"
** BTW after checking, the final count of signatures appears closer to the minima required, which explains why so many where gathered in the first place (petitions are rarely reliable)
*** see "
The fastuous and the furious : trimming down Seoul city's most embarrassing projects"
**** see "
Oh Se-hoon 2.0"

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