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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Home, Sweet Home - A One Pyeong Theater, A Pop-up Restaurant

Nowadays, cultural social networking events can occupy whole streets, and over the past 5 years Seoul has experienced its share of flash mobs (for instance last year in Insadong). But the concept doesn't necessarily involve Twitter and anonymous crowds. Believe it or not, social networking existed long before the internet, and inviting people for dinner (IRL, like with - OMG - not-even-facebook friends, and - R U Crious? - totally non-virtual food) can be considered a sort of Social Networking Service 1.0.

Now inviting complete strangers to your place, that's a statement about how you consider social interactions altogether.

Every major city (NYC, London, Paris) has stories of individuals who opened their doors to meet and share over a homecooked meal. For instance in Paris, where an American citizen has been, for decades, receiving once a week about twenty people from all over the world.

In parallel with 'home-like' restaurants where all patrons share the same table, menu, and dinner time, this concept hasn't evolved all the way from 'underground / alternative' to 'mainstream', but to a reasonably 'trendy' status, as people started looking either for sense in an overconnected world, or more trivially for new exciting experiences / exclusive moments. Still now, you can find both 'activist' and 'business' approaches.

"Pop-up restaurants" are the ideal tool to create a buzz or to test a new concept or menu: a one-shot event, an usual location, a happy few trendsetters, and there you go. It sounds a bit cynic, like a pre-launch focus group, but when you open a restaurant you can lose big, and that's a smart way to reassure or convince partners and investors, as well as to deliver the best to your customers. And cuisine-wise, chefs can be more daringly experimental, take a break from daily routine, have and give fun.

Until now, the concept didn't exist in Korea, except maybe for the dinners organized by Cho Tae-kwon at his place with top chefs. For years, this passionate advocate of Korean food has been waging a top-down cultural revolution: from the finest restaurant (my beloved
The Gaon) to high end soju (Hwajo), and of course luxury ceramic ware (Cho Tae-kwon being first KwangJuYo's CEO, and second a wise businessman).

A real pop-up restaurant in Seoul? Fellow food lovers Joe McPherson's and Sarah Lee's decided to take up the gauntlet: with "Back Kitchen-Seoul", they intend "to take Korean ingredients and dishes and re-imagine them - the emphasis is on freshness, flavor, and fun. There is no official charge for the family-style dinner, just a W30,000 suggested donation for ingredients, time and effort. Drinks are extra.*" The venue, a cafe near Anguk-dong (Cafe Gondry, Gye-dong 140-23), is not exactly a private home but the cooks will have a better environment to concentrate on what really matters. No wonder the event is almost already booked up.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Sejongno, someone decided to turn his own apartment into the tiniest stage. Actor SIM Cheol-jong promised to prepare some eggs for the audience to snack during his performance in his improvised "One Pyeong Theater" (1 pyeong = about 3.3 square meters - now that's Home Theater 1.0!). To accomodate visitors, he actually needs 10 pyeong of his 23 pyeong officetel***. Not much, but that's a cathedral compared to "
Bien Etre".

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* "Korea's first pop-up restaurant"
** "
광화문 한복판에 '한평극장' 관객에 계란도 삶아주겠다"
*** In Byeoksan Gwanghwamun Sidae (광화문시대), that's in Naesu-dong, and after Government buildings and the Jongno Church when you come from Sejongno.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Every other Sunday

From April on, all hypermarkets and big stores in Korea will be forced to close every second and fourth Sunday of the month. The measure aims at protecting smaller players, and diminishing the market share of chaebols.

Of course, HomePlus-Samsung-Tesco, Lotte, eMart-Shinsegae, won't not lose it all: expect even more crowded Saturdays, and the acceleration of substitution by online shopping. And naturally, the clock keeps ticking for the bulk of traditional markets.

Yet I see a potential boost for diversity in leisure and cultural activities.

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Yulgokno Tunnel

I took these two grainy pictures with my dumbphone, and didn't need Instagram to give them a sepia look: if GCS Int'l enjoy a fantastic view on downtown Seoul, and if they know how to host a seminar*, their windows need some washing.

That's what I call a minor room for improvement.

The problem is when 'improvement' takes too much room, like when the city renovates one of its most strategic boulevards, Yulgokno. Here I'm recycling the ugly sketch I drew for my focus on "Inwangsan's Great Wall and Seoul's Royal "T" Time":

Just to help you locate GCS HQs on Yulgokno, this is their Northern view, from Gwonnong-dong: a section of Changdeokgung (east of Donhwamun, the palace's main gate), Bugaksan in the distance (the mountain), and the hills of Wonseo-dong in-between (Bukchon area, close to Gahoe-dong in the sketch).

Now next slide, please:

Here's a Northeastern view with the four lanes of Yulgokno heading for Wonnam-dong Sageori. You can make out the small footbridge connecting Jongmyo (right) with Changgyeonggung-Changdeokgung Palaces (left), and the working site with its sign advertising the "improvement of Yulgokno in front of Changdeokgung".

From the start*, I applauded the project to reunite Jongmyo and Changdeokgung by covering a section of Yulgokno, but also wondered how the city would manage two more lanes of traffic, and if all impacts were carefully considered (cultural heritage, environment, bicycles, pedestrians...).

Judging by this shot, we're at the stage where asphalt gains over green: the old and peaceful woods of Jongmyo have already shrunk to make room for two more lanes, or at least to divert the traffic during the process.

The doubts remain: I wouldn't want this section of Yulgokno to become yet another dark tunnel, yet another repellent for humans and cyclists, yet another neighborhood sacrificed to Car Almighty. What would be the point of reconnecting North with South while disconnecting East from West?

So let's keep an eye on this one. And if needed, let's summon the ghosts of Sulla-gil. Anyway, they too are watching. Yes, that's Seo Sulla-gil, the street starting right at the working site's gate. And if you want to learn more about that haunted 'patrol way', meet "Jongmyo Ghosts".

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* the Asia Institute seminar on North Korean nuclear power (see "NK and nukes: back to the (dolsot curling) stone age?")
**see "Jongno-gu renovation (continued)", following "Jongmyo-Changdeokgung reunited"

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NK and nukes: back to the (dolsot curling) stone age?

As expected, North Korea set the agenda ahead of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit (see focus on Seoul Village), this time by announcing for April a 'satellite' launch in the general direction of (Japan, thank Kim The Third for small mercies) the East China Sea.

Shooting Southwards doesn't make sense if you want to optimize a satellite launch and leverage the Earth's rotation, or in the case of North Korea, if you want to minimize the risks of casualties, but of course, that's not the aim of the game. And speaking of games: sweeping such a big fat "dolsot" curling stone all the way down to the hottest spot of contention between Korea and Japan*... my oh my, what a smart way of piggybacking international conflicts! You know, like a M-VNO entering a market without rolling out its own wireless network? These guys are inventing low cost dictatorship!

As is often the case, this latest crisis can be interpreted as the North Korean idea of a private joke between what passes for the executive power there and the local army (I know, these days, distinguishing one from the other is the equivalent of a hairsplitting contest in a Buddhist monastery, particularly now that Kim Elvis has met his maker - not Kim Il-sung, the other one, if he?she?it? exists). The message? In a nutshell: swallow this bitter pill, willya? In extenso: Okaaay guys, we just reached an agreement with the Evil Empire of the United Rogue States of America about our nuclear activities, but look: we just needed the suckers to send us some more bags of rice for you, because there's only you in our lives - "Army first", remember? And to make sure we want to follow your "Juche Line"**, we'll make both the "Sunshine Line" and the "Beijing Line" angry by shooting our rocket (oops, 'launching our satellite') toward the East China Sea – heck, while we're at it, we could even crash Taiwan's party as well...

... Where was I?

In Gwonnong-dong, of course. This very morning. At the top floor of GCS International Building, enjoying a glorious view on Changdeokgung (to my left), and Jongmyo (to my right). What better location for a seminar on North Korean nukes than the headquarters of a peace-oriented NGO (GCS), with a view on two key symbols of power in 'Chosun' times: in peace and harmony on one side, with the deceased on the other...

With so much at stake, we have no choice but to try and be cautiously optimistic. And to keep humor alive. As Woody Allen put it during his intensive training of Kim Jong-un: "More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly".

Among today's panelists, John E. ENDICOTT (President, Woosong University) was the closest to experience a near-death 'Dr Strangelove' situation: this US Air Force veteran told us how, at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis, he ended up in a bunker with the top brass announcing that doom was likely to be ignited in 20 minutes...

In these really tricky times, I'm looking forward to Obama's visit of the DMZ, a potential 'jeoneun Hanguk saram imnida' / 'Mr Kim, tear down that wall' moment. Not a game changer, but a simple message: the time of reconciliation will eventually come, and the sooner the better, but it takes a dialog between both Korean halves, starting right now.

Last year, South Korea was reconsidering its own tough-cop approach, which proved rather counter-productive... except maybe from the Chinese point of view (see "
Re-engaging North Korea - A Four Party Talk"). Today, our panelists were more interested in how far the North was ready to engage in collaboration.

Hosted by GCS International, this Asia Institute Seminar focused on "Revisiting Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Security in North Korea"***. Hard to expect full collaboration and transparency from the most secretive country on the touchiest of materials, with a nuclear industry globally in damage control mode ever since the tsunami hit the fan in Fukushima, and days after South Korea unveiled an embarrassing cover-up following an incident in its own nuclear facilities (see "
Twelve Minutes in Bballi-Bballiland"). And Sharon SQUASSONI, an expert in proliferation prevention who's visited the North several times, thinks that North Koreans themselves may be a bit too confident about how much they know about their own level of security.

You'd think the collaboration between Japan and its neighbors would have improved after last year's fiasco but it turns out that no, little or no progress has been made, and communication is already poor within an archipelago technically cut in two (electricity itself cannot circulate between West - 60 Hz - and East - 50 Hz!), and where private operators are not compelled to disclose key indicators as is the case in the US. If even close and friendly neighbors don't trust each other, no wonder the general public show doubt and defiance toward governments and the nuclear industry in general. Former Minister of the Environment KIM Myung-ja stressed the power of activists and the need for transparency.

After the Daichi mess, daily measurements of radioactivity from the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety brought much needed clarity to the debate and today, I welcomed the precious insights from their principal researcher: a technical expert with a sound approach of the human and cultural factors, Dr KIM Sok-chul underlined the differences between security and safety, or between the perception of events, their comprehension, and their prevention. He also revealed that the risk of human errors was maximal with knowledge based behaviors (compared to ruled based or skilled based systems). The same could be said about finance and neural scoring systems but enough scary stories for today.

Actually, this very gloomy period could prove rich in opportunities. Instead of the usual blame game and finger pointing at one rogue state, both Koreas, China, and Japan could humbly seat at the same table with a simple task: we're all in this together, as neighbors and fellow (at least) civil nuclear powers, and we are all facing criticisms for various reasons. Let's share about it, and find ways to be more efficient for the next emergency. To make it simpler, let's keep Russia and the US out of this***. We won't judge each other, just make sure we handle things better than last year. Maybe, as trust and confidence grows, we'll share more information, but let's start this with modest yet vital objectives.

Since the audience was rather small, everybody could chime in, so I suggested this sort of a NEAR (North East Asia Response) task force. Earlier, Scott SNYDER, who deplored the US failure to prevent vertical proliferation, had proposed a more direct offer to North Korea: you want to launch a satellite? Great: we can do it for you, and safely. Of course they'll refuse (it's all about controlling the propeller, and not for satellites), but bringing the discussions to new planes may work better than - say - Sergey Labrov's basic reset button.

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* see "Ieodo: I smell a fish", or the controversial construction of a US Navy base at the Southwestern tip of Jeju-do

** if you're a bit lost with the different characters, see the previous episodes of our NK drama, including "
Re-engaging North Korea - A Four Party Talk"

*** "Revisiting Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Security in North Korea" (Asia Institute Seminar) 2012/03/22:
- Introduction: CHO Cheol-je (Secretary General, GCS International)
- Opening remarks: John E. ENDICOTT (President, Woosong University)
- Panelists: Sharon SQUASSONI (Director, Proliferation Prevention Program, CSIS), Scott A. SNYDER (Senior Fellow for Korea Studies, Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations), KIM Sok-chul (Principal Researcher, Head, Radiological Emergency and Security Preparedness Department, KINS - Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety), KIM Myung-ja (Chairwoman, Green 21 Forum / Former Minister of the Environment)
- Moderator: Emanuel PASTREICH (Director, The Asia Institute / Professor, Humanitas College, Kyung Hee University)
On the picture, left to right: Ms. KIM, Mr. KIM, Ms. SQUASSONI, Mr. SNYDER

**** anyway, as Dr KIM pointed out, 20 years from now, 50% of the world's nuclear reactors will be located in the region.

Myeong-dong Narratives

Gwanghwamun, Gangnam... my favorite museum in Korea continues its exploration of Seoul neighborhoods. And if this exhibition on Myeong-dong is not as great as the one on Jongno (see "Jongno Elegy") or of course KIM Gi-chan's alleyways, it's still worth the visit.

Street scenes, testimonies, sounds, images, films, cultural events... as usual, you are sent back in time and surrounded with elements from daily life. "Myeong-dong Narratives" focuses on the 1950s, which helped me fill the gap between the "Japanese Myeongdong" of the Occupation, and the Myeongdong I've known for 20 years.

Even now that the Myeongdong Theater has reopened, it's hard to imagine the place as a buzzing spot full of artists, authors, and intellectuals. Ever the shopping mecca, Myeongdong was at the same time the Saint Germain des Pres, the Montparnasse, and the Champs Elysees of the fifties. Later on, but long before they started spitting two penny K-Pop on every passer-by, its streets resonated with slogans against the dictatorship.

But time loves to fly. Theaters moved out (to Daehangno), intellectuals deserted the area, high schoolers replaced university students, shops replaced cafe theatres, tourists replaced high schoolers, SPAs replaced shops... Only constant: Myeongdong remains one of Seoul's shopping hubs, and premium real estate.

Food for thought for a cultural neighborhood like Hongdae: as I wrote earlier (see "Six lanes of traffic"), you have to chose between speculation and identity, between Zara and thustra, between Esprit and indie spirit. Creative minds tend to vote with their feet.

"Myeong-dong Narratives" (exhibition)
Seoul Museum of History
50 Saemunan-gil / 2-1 Shinmunro-2-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea 110-062
Phone : 120 (Dasan hotline)

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Melody Nelson in Seoul

Birkin is very popular in Korea. I mean the Hermes bag, not the young lady who, following Grace Kelly, lost her last name to the French luxury brand. Note that the Kelly's design recently fell into the public domain, thus the series of 'homage'-knockoffs from all rival manufacturers.

Jane Birkin is very popular in France. As a singer, as an actress, as a mother*, as a very positive character who, even 40 years after crossing the Channel, speaks French with the cutest / most extreme accent, and as Serge Gainsbourg's muse during some of his most ambitious and creative years ('Histoire de Melody Nelson', 'L'Homme a Tete de Chou'...). Who cares if 'her' bag falls into public domain (I guess that would be around the 2030s)?

Serge Gainsbourg is the Picasso of French music: a despicable, abusive womanizer who stole ideas from masters of all horizons and periods, but also a creative genius who set the pace for decades and claimed the XXth century in his field**. Jazz, reggae, rap... Gainsbourg scored massive hits in every single musical genre. But over the past 20 years, he's been chatting with Maupassant or Sartre in Cimetiere de Montparnasse. And last time I saw him, about 3 weeks ago, his place looked as messy as his trademark three day stubble. Only Jim Morrison's tomb could rival for the devotion of fans, but that one's in Pere Lachaise (along with Oscar Wilde's, the constant target of... lipstick kisses).

These days, Jane Birking is singing Serge Gainsbourg across the Asia-Pacific region, and she will perform only one night in Seoul. The opportunity to (re)discover some of Serge's greatest songs, and Jane's unique way of almost wispering them.

Jane Birkin Sings Serge Gainsbourg (concert)
2012/03/22 - 8PM
AX-KOREA ( 319-33 Gwangjang-dong, Gwangjin-gu, Seoul / Tel: +82.2.457.5114
Tickets : Interpark code 12002423

주최: ㈜씨쓰리엔터테인먼트 주관: ㈜아이디어랩 문의: 02-6339-1232

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*(among others) Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon
** even if, again, I prefer Bacon and Bourgeois to Don Pablo

Friday, March 16, 2012

Chataigne - A Table Bis (Seoul)

20 years ago, driving across Samcheong-dong by night meant following a dark road dotted with only a few lights - a quiet neighborhood with just a couple of shops and restaurants (rather close to the Gyeongbokgung), and maybe a mom and pop store before the last stretch to the tunnel. I won't say Samcheongdong-gil has turned into Las Veghanok's Strip but the change is radical: neons, shops and fancy eateries...

... And now this. Haechi, Seoul City's mascot, painted on US-style fire hydrants. I know Japanese tourists love the area but is this Gahoe-dong or Kawaii-dong?

That's it for my hypocrite Rant of the Day.

Because as you may know, even if I often criticize the extinction of friendly neighborhood Korean restaurants, I happen to enjoy some ov'em "fancy eateries".

Take Palpan-dong, for instance. That's a neighborhood just off main street, before the Prime Minister's residence when you come from downtown. Palpan-gil recently followed the boboization of Samcheong-dong, and is now lined with small fashion boutiques and cafes, preferably with a Frenchoid name. It all started with a tiny restaurant called 'A Table'. The owners opened 'A Table Bis' just around the corner, a bistrot which makes us Frogs feel just like home, in some nice little provincial restaurant (pommes de terre Sarladaise would be even better with the confit de canard, but that's probably because I've got too strong ties with Perigord Noir...).

This small alley has been hosting a second French restaurant for quite a while: facing the two-storey 'A Table Bis', 'Chataigne' proposes a more upscale menu (table d'hote) in a cute re-hanokized house seating no more than 12 people*. A well serviced place, but no pretensions, and a very kind Chef, who masters fine emulsions and sauces (delicious yam and snails). Merging dishes #3 and 4 (before today's main dishes: rainbow trout or ribeye) could make an even stronger statement, but that's not the positioning. What you enjoy is a soothing moment at a reasonable price.

Chataigne / 샤테뉴 (restaurant)
130-3 Palpan-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel: +82.2.736.5385

A Table Bis (restaurant)
100-2 Palpan-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel: +82.2.736.1049

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* an army on Bien Etre's scale (see "Bien Etre (Seoul)")

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Seoul Village on YouTube

If you think Seoul Village is a messy website, you haven't visited the YouTube page yet.

I might, some day, do something about it. Until then, I'll probably pile up more sounds and silences, exhibitions and demonstrations, walks and rides... unedited, random bits of Seoul:

And I might even, by the end of this millenium, do something about the thousands of pictures of Korea I took over the past 20 years.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Twelve Minutes in Bballi-Bballiland

Between 8:34 and 8:46 on February 9, 2012, the Gori-1 reactor of KEPCO's Kori Nuclear Plant lost power, a first for the national nuclear industry (operational since 1978). More embarrassing: it took 12 minutes to realize that the back-up system didn't work either, the kind of details that could lead to a meltdown. And the reactor was under a safety inspection, which theoretically means under close scrutiny...

Twelve minutes, that's about the time it took for South Korean guns to retaliate following the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do by North Korea, in late 2010, because they were pointing in the wrong direction during ROK navy drills*.

I've already mentioned the unpreparedness of South Korea regarding blitz attacks from the North**, but the Kori incident confirms serious risk management issues in strategic fields. In the land of 'bballi bballi', some long term vision might also help.

Kori, or Gori, or more accurately Go-ri, Jangan-eup, Gijang-gun, lies within Busan Gwangyeoksi limits, a.k.a. Busan Metropolitan City, 3 million souls. You lucky you, here's the map***:

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* see "We need to talk about KIM". Note that the Obama administration dissuaded SK from carrying a larger counter-attack. Considering the precision of the shots, that was probably a sound call.
** see "
Korean blitz : all bases loaded"
*** on the Eastern shores, as usual (see my post-fukushimesque "
Shaken and stirred")

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ieodo: I smell a fish

Long time no Ieodo claims from China!

For the Dokdo-esque fight between Korea and China over this obscure underwater territory known as Suyan Rock in Beijing, see "
Korea on the rocks part II". Since Ieodo is underwater, it cannot be seen on a map*, but I positioned it (supposedly 32.122953, 125.182447) on Seoul Village map:

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The revival of such claims doesn't come as a surprise: Chinese fishing boats have recently tested South Korean nerves, the ongoing crisis culminating last December, when a Chinese fisherman stabbed a Korean coast guard to death. China has also been flexing its navy muscles across the globe, patrolling the seas with brand new fleets.

Just like with Japan and Dokdo, nationalism and politics are only part of the show: it's also about territorial waters and fishing zones, and China's catching up with its neighbors in fish and meat consumption... So skirmishes and provocations are bound to multiply.

Note that on the other side of the peninsula, Korea claimed a symbolic victory last month, when French publisher Larousse decided to switch for a balanced label to designate the body of water separating Korea from Japan: "Sea of Japan" now only appears in parentheses after the actual name, "East Sea"**.

Brace up for Ieodoisms, folks: fancy documentaries about rare planctons roaming the area? daily weather reports? 'Ieodo is Korean' bumper stickers?... you name it!

Be quick: someone may rename it.

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* even if Koreans planted a Korean Ieodo Ocean Research Station to mark the territory, without waiting for a verdict from global warming.
** "
French Encyclopedia Publisher Adopts 'East Sea' Denomination" (Chosun Ilbo, February 20, 2012)

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