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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Happy Seollal

Happy New Year / 새해 복 많이 받으세요 !

According to the lunar calendar, we're about to enter the year of the black dragon on January the 23rd, which happens to be a Monday, day of the moon.

It's time to grow older and wiser, and to pay homage to our elders.

Don't forget to eat ddeokguk, and to distribute envelopes to your closest members of parliament (barely kidding - judging by the news, that tradition seems to be stickier than ddeok).

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A 6 Star Hotel in Gwanghwamun?

If Korean Air's ambitious 7-Star 'hanokish' hotel near Anguk* remains on hold, Mirae Asset's project for a 6-Star hotel at Gwanghwamun Station seems back on tracks.

As we saw earlier, many office buildings are to be delivered over the next few months and years in this area, and across the capital, some projects are already being partly converted into hotel rooms because the boom in tourism is expected to continue as Seoul catches up with rival world magnets. No wonder Jongno-gu wanted developpers to come up with something different than the office space initially planned at this prestigious address (Gwanghwamun Naegeori or the Saemunan-ro / Sejongdae-ro intersection).

We first heard about the project last March but today, more details were released in the media: 26 floors, 316 to 348 rooms, and an inauguration scheduled for 2016. To operate the hotel, Mirae would love to deal with Four Seasons. The franchise usually settles for buildings with a long history but here, the location is loaded with culture and history : in Shinmunro, between Gwanghwamun Square and Gyeonghuigung, just opposite Cheonggyecheon, and halfway between Gyeongbokgung/Seochon and Deoksugung/City Hall**. Bonus: a relatively low competitive pressure (not far from the Koreana Hotel, but clearly in a different area than the Westin or the Plaza).

Hankyung (Korea Economic Daily) published an update of the tourist hotels under construction in Seoul ("
"외국인 관광객 잡아라" 서울 도심 호텔 6000실 '공사중'"): a total of 6,000 rooms, and a few other Jongno-gu projects (JW Marriot in Jongno 6-ga, Waterfront in Gwansu-dong, and Ibis Ambassador in Ikseon-dong).

I hope the sketch presented in that article as the future Gwanghwamun landmark is just a first draft.

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*"Korean Air Grounded : Seoul 7 Star Hotel Delayed"
** and don't forget Baekundongcheon ("
Baekundongcheon / Gwanghwamun-gil - A River Runs Through It")!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Welfare in Korea: the debate (or lack of)

In today's Korea Herald: "Should Korea adopt a welfare state?", and my take on the issue ("On welfare...", and below):

Welfare will probably be a key issue in this year's elections in Korea, and it should: particularly in these extremely challenging times, it's not only a matter of social security, but a matter of national security, about the social and financial sustainability of a nation.

If Korea is not the only country facing similar challenges in this electoral year, it must also cope with rather depressing demographic trends, and an utterly polarized political landscape. Last year, even the tragicomic budget debate in the States paled in comparison with Seoul's surreal war about free lunches at school. I can't even use the word "debate", which implies the existence of a two-way communication, for a farce that resulted in the ultimate denial of democracy: the boycott of a referendum intended to settle the case.

All parties share the blame, but the irony of it is that Oh Se-hoon lost his seat with the support of conservatives for a cause that would have been carried by the left in such welfare states as France. I supported Oh Se-hoon on this very cause because it was just, and truly progressive.

And I bet that his successor Park Won-soon, also a good person who genuinely cares for the community, will eventually realize that he'll be able to do much more if he drops the free-for-all system he fought for. Anyway, both shared a sensible vision: Korea needs to do more, and better for welfare.

"More and better" requires common sense as much as good will. Regardless of which areas and how deep it reaches, a good welfare system is a sustainable welfare system. And since it's designed to fix complex problems that constantly evolve, it must always remain fit and reactive. Thus, a good welfare system should be both transparent and fair.

Transparency? A lot of money is at stake, and the system should be closely but openly monitored. In every country, billions are lost in corruption, abuse, waste or fraud from all areas of the spectrum. They cripple the system, and even when they represent only a tiny fraction of the total, they undermine the cause.

Transparency also allows the detection of early signals, the anticipation of disruptions in the environment, the adjustment of policies ahead of troubles.

Fairness? "Universal coverage", "equal rights" or "equal access" doesn't mean everybody should pay the same. No welfare system is sustainable if the richer don't pay for the poorer.

That's not socialism but good governance, and history teaches us all too often what happens when governments fail to accept this evidence.

In Korea like everywhere, the time has come for politicians to do their job. To govern is to foresee, and politics is not about partisanship but about reaching for the best common good with ambitious but wise policies.

More common sense and less ideology in 2012? A rather long shot, judging by the US primaries.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wet eyes for wetlands and urban mirages

Another heated debate on KBC*, this time over the environmental impact of Songdo (the new town has been mostly claimed over wetlands). My position on the issues remain unchanged:

... About Songdo:

I've already spilled more than a few comments about that monumental aerotropolis (see previous posts about Songdo), and I sincerely wish the best for the project. But clearly, this is not my idea of a dream city, and I think that when you have the chance to start from scratch, you must come up with truly original and sustainable concepts and vision. And in many ways, the masterplan remains typical of 1990s Korea. Furthermore, the ultimate network society utopia could have started in a much more stimulating way, had the approach not been exclusively "top down".

That said, Songdo is already up and running, with the potential of a great success.

I have considerably more doubts regarding another pharaonic projects on Korean shores: Saemangeum, from the beginning an economic and environmental nonsense**. Well... faith and money can move mountains, but even in Korea, they don't come in unlimited supply.

... About wetlands and sanctuaries in Korea:

Swamps and marshes have been systematically obliterated over past centuries. They're not glamour and often a nuisance, but we've realized only recently how crucial they are to the global ecosystem, not just for fauna or flora diversity, but also in the cycle of water depollution.

Even Korea caught the message, following a major conference about wetlands in Changwon (Ramsar Convention 2008 - already three years ago, how time flies). It even triggered programs for preservation and eco-tourism at the national and regional levels.

But all natural assets remain at risk because of the country's pervasive real estate speculation: the other day I discovered disheartening projects of marinas and villas along pristine seashores, and two years ago we could see how even sanctuarized greenbelts could be sacrificed to the gods of concrete and steel***.

... About New Towns and the laws of gravitation:

New cities must always be conceived with a long term vision that encompasses the past as well as the future. And one of the great tragedies in Korean urbanism is the fact that developpers prefer to build from scratch a new city instead of improving existing ones, even if it means the eventual failure of both. I understand the short term economics, but that's simply not sustainable.

That's true for both "Urban New Towns" and "Greenfield New Towns". The first expression may sound like a tautology, but that's how I define New Towns replacing partly or totally an already urbanized area. I often lament about how, in Seoul, New Towns tend to obliterate all reference to the past. There's a quantum leap between improving a city and negating it, and that's exactly what happened when whole neighborhoods vanished, replaced by over-sanitized and over-standardized blocks of tombstone "apateu". If the spirit of Seoul villages could somewhat survive in certain complexes, the city may face new challenges as the generation that ignited the baby boom passes away.

Moving on to "Greenfield New Towns", now. If you want to evaluate their impacts, don't just consider their direct environment. Take Incheon, for instance: even if you remain within Incheon territory, Songdo is only part of a gigantic scheme that involves other greenfield projects (eg Cheongna), and partial redevelopments of existing neighborhoods. But at the heart of the city, many places have regressed over the past decade, surviving in some kind of limbo. In other countries they would have been priorities for improvement, but they don't stand a chance when money talks first in urban planning. What may seem good for business in the short term may prove to be socially, politically, and economically counter-productive in the medium to long term.

In countless places across the country, some cities are already schizophrenic entities with brand new districts totally disconnected from former city centers stuck in the wrong side of the eighties, and if authorities don't invest now to fix the balance, the mess will only get worse****.

If you can try to pass the buck to the next administration, you simply can't escape demographics.

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*see comments following the article "Korea Business Central Exclusive Interview - Dick Warmington, "Uncovering Korean Potential at Chadwick School in Korea's New City of Songdo""
** see "Ari, Arirang, Ari, Ariul City"
*** see "Tighten your greenbelt"
**** Note that the winners of today may not be the winners of tomorrow considering the end of the universal "apateu" model, the relatively low cost of land downtown...

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