Saturday, November 11, 2017

Year Of The Dog (free ebook)

Initially published in French 10 years ago ('L'Année du Chien' - 'Breves', 2007), 'Year Of The Dog' remains so far my only non-fiction Seoul 'dragedie', and the only one written from a foreigner's point of view. Yet it's not my first story featuring a dog - that would be 'Le regard d'un ami' (1979), where the narrator himself is canine. 

Which, as you'll see, doesn't make me humane.

I met this dog in Sanggye-dong, Nowo-gu, along Danghyeoncheon, long before Seoul upgraded it into a park. That streamlet also appears in my essay "Inhuman, all too human Seoul" (picture of an old timer who used to grow vegetables there).

Like for 'Guisin-dong', you can download this story for free. I hope you enjoy it, but welcome any comments (e.g. on dragedies website, on Amazon...).

Stephane - November 2017
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Monday, October 23, 2017

This time it's different

You know the bad cop - bad cop routine with North Korea: provocations, sanctions, provocations, sanctions, war threats, journos flocking to the peninsula, and leaving a couple of weeks later with stories about how apathetic South Koreans can be, or with 'rare glimpses' into rural DPRK caught from the windows of their buses to remote museums honoring past leaders...

Of course, we all know that the gimchi will eventually hit the fan, that this regime won't last forever, that someday something will happen, and that whatever the scenario, it will be messy. 

But we also take for granted that if something really really stupid happens, it won't come from the US.

This time it's different*.

To start with, somebody really really stupid sits in the Oval Office. A narcissic, delusional, short-fused bully with the attention span of a goldfish, desperate to score awesome wins bigly, and surrounded by dangerous and incompetent advisors eager to strike as soon as possible, but without any clue about what's at stake. Certain days, it seems that the only sane person in 1600 Penn Ave is a Mad Dog (James Mattis).

This time, it's different. 46% of GOP voters are okay with a strike against NK, much more than the usual 33+% base of hardcore trumpolatres who would follow their leader beyond the gates of Hell. And well beyond party lines, in many American minds, the leader of North Korea has logically grown from than a distant, weirdly combed clown-meme, to a clear and immediate danger able to launch nukes all the way to their front yard. Among them, how many are aware that tens of thousands of US citizens have already been living for decades South of the DMZ, knowing that they could be wiped out in minutes even without nukes being involved?

This time, it's different. In South Korea, apathy gave way to genuine concern. Particularly since MOON Jae-in seems inaudible on the international scene, and completely out of the loop, and not just because Trump is not much into diplomacy (BTW still no new Ambo to Korea). In 1994, the US did listen to KIM Young-sam, and canceled their strike. During the Sunshine years, they lost key entry points in the North, and last year, they saw the most confidential allied plans hacked by Pyongyang. Now Donald TRUMP only trusts fellow radical Shinzo ABE, who played him from day one, and confirmed that KIM Jong-un could prove very useful to revive a political career, and to score big legislative wins in spite of awful popularity ratings.**

This time, it's different. On his upcoming trip to East-Asia, the POTUS may skip the classic DMZ tour, and instead visit the Pyeongtaek base. Not to better understand the realities on the frontline, but as usual to elude reality; to avoid facing directly the North, and to remain in his comfort zone - his aides will probably set up yet another one of his self-morale-boosting campaign-style rallies. Chances are his tweeting bird brain will interpret cheerleaders applauding his warmongering rethorics as the ultimate 'GO FOR IT'.

This time, it's different. Storytellers are already assuring us that this is not the next Iraq, but no one dares bulls...t us about surgical strikes, because there are too many targets (and elusive at that), too many unknown unknowns. And you can't clean the mess afterwards, even with such an 'ace' cleaner as the Winston in Pulp Fiction***.

This time, it's different. Of course, no one should defend the DPRK regime - everybody knows about their human rights violations, WMDs, nukes, chemical weapons, you name it. Of course, the UNSC remains unanimous behind tougher sanctions, but how far will the world let Trump play KJU's risky escalation game? 
- Where is the international community? Where are the moderates?
- Where are FoPo doves? (certainly not non-expert Ted Cruz delivering his angry two cents in the NYT) Where is Obama? (strategic silence - so happy that the gimchi didn't hit the fan during his mandate) Where is Jimmy Carter? (oh he's still there, but for how long, and why would Trump let him go to Pyongyang)
- Where's China? (well the priority for XI Jinping was to secure his grip at home, and KJU was smart enough to spare him more embarrassment during the CPC's 19th National Congress)
- Where's Putin? (watching DJT make China and Russia great again, and gaining clout in North Korea, but with which guarantees?)
- What is Trump's red line? is the Congress aware of it - heck, is the Donald himself even aware of it?

When Elusivarus Rex Tillerson said diplomacy was still on until the first bomb drops, he didn't specify who would drop the first bomb.

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* from "This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly" to "This Time Is Different: Seven Decades of Political Folly"?
** According to Asahi Shimbun, 80% of the new assembly favor a revision of the constitution, even if less than half of the population does so - already a victory for Nippon Kaigi considering how pacifism used to dominate. The neofascist lobby rules more than ever Japan politics: Nippon Kaigi claims main ABE rivals Yuriko KOIKE (who founded a new party), and Seiji MAEHARA (who claimed the DPJ, forcing a split in the main opposition party, Yukio EDANO leading the new Constitutional Democratic Party created to defend democracy).
*** modeled after Victor in Besson's original Nikita movie

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017

Good to see the first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism come to life two years after that kick-off symposium at the Seoul Museum of History! Roaming its venues is also the opportunity to see how the city's urban regeneration programs* advance, particularly in Seun Sangga, Mapo Depot / Oil Tank Culture Park, and Donuimun Museum Village.

From SIBAU to the Seoul Biennale

Ever since the event was announced, I expected something special. If you remember the context well, it was supposed to crown the presidential campaign of Mayor PARK Won-soon ahead of the November elections, by showcasing his vision and realizations, starting with the Seoullo 7017 inaugurated only months before**. PARK Geun-hye's impeachment and the mayor's failed campaign purged the biennale from that noise, making it all the more interesting.

To me, this inaugural biennale really started in October 2015, with a symposium opening up the debate about what (yet) a(nother) biennale should be, how to make it relevant in an already crowded calendar.
'City architect of Seoul SEUNG Hyo-sang at 2015 SIBAU - new keywords for architecture and urbanism' (20171026 -
Back then, the project was known as SIBAU (Seoul International Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism), which almost resonated like a tribute to Walter Gropius. The 'I', and the acronym altogether, were later discarded, probably because a Seoul biennale can only be international, and because there can only be one Seoul Biennale.

Announced last year, the theme, 'Imminent Commons', conveys a sense of emergency in troubled times. Nine commons were selected along ecology (earth, wind, water, fire), and technology (Making, Moving, Communicating, Sensing, Recycling) lines.

On Friday, for the V.I.P. preview day, PAI Hyungmin (co-director with Alejandro Zaera-Polo) launched the first edition with a tour of the cities exhibition at the DDP, followed by the opening forum featuring Ricky BURDETT, and a presentation of the festivities planned across the capital.
Pyongyang opens the show with a cosy interior filled with HWANG Jin-yong songs, but lacking the portraits of KIM I and KIM II, masked on the wall to comply with anti-propaganda laws.

Pyongyang interior at SIBAU 2017 City Expo. Soundtrack HWANG Jin-yong (20170831

Of course, Le Corbusier chimed in again*** to reunite both Korean capitals in the most urbanistically dystopian way:

Pyongyang 2015, Le Corbusier 1935, Seoul 1970... Corbu wins, urbanism loses (20170831

Among the more formally invited cities, Oslo proposed a bucolic catalogue of its edible natural assets, and Paris prolonged its presentation at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal.

So come visit the DDP for this expo, but don't forget to enjoy the 'off' parts of the festival, and side venues that deserve more attention than Zaha's last gasp. Again, to me, this complex is more sculptural than architectural, and a perfect example of the very negation of urbanism. It totally ignored the urban context, and would rather suit Dubai than the center of Seoul...

That (re)said, I'll focus on three of the seven other venues (I'll save Changsin-dong for other occasions).

Urban regeneration - 3 works in progress

So let's return to Seun Sangga, Mapo Depot / Oil Tank Culture Park, and Donuimun Museum Village (you can also check "Urban Regeneration: 27 Projects For Seoul" to refresh your memory).

SEUN SANGGA is still undergoing the first phase of its revamping (see previous episodes). The priority was to improve connectivity across the neighborhoods, and you can see a great deal of  new staircases and escalators all over the place. As demanded in the competition brief, the Northern and Southern halves of KIM Swoo-geun's cruise ship are being reconnected. And like most projects, this one added new neighborhood / urban regeneration exhibition spaces.

The main problem with this new and improved Seun? It somehow spoils key assets of the old one, particularly the view on Cheonggyecheon (there were probably more discreet ways to connect the deck and the stream than this bulky staircase), and the feeling of space when you walk the deck (I love Seoul alleyways, but adding new structures all along the way was a mistake). But this was a very challenging project, and if Seun's fragile ecosystem and spirit subsists, this will be a victory.

'Seun Sangga recovered its arms, with a massive staircase obliterating the best view over Cheonggyecheon' (20170831 -
"Sneak peek from #Seun Electronic Museum / #세운전자박물관, which opens tomorrow" (20170831 -

MAPO DEPOT (now Oil Tank Culture Park) also lost some of its charm. Even the creative squatters who occupied the abandoned site have joined the main stream by optimizing their FAR with new containers, and surrounding their now legalized lot with a classic fence and hedge. I understand that you couldn't keep the tanks 'in their juice', but there's a bit too much concrete for my taste, and the cathedral-like volumes have shrunk too dramatically. Tank #3 has been spared, so you still can have a gist of what it used to be, but you can't get inside that one. Nevertheless a spectacular site, with rocks carved to prevent neighboring parts of the city from suffering in case of explosion, and a fun walk particularly during the Seoul Architecture Festival, with plenty of talks and exhibitions to enjoy.

'At the former #MapoOilDepot for the #SeoulArchitectureFestival. Only the ghosts of the tanks subsist. They lost their inner volumes, shells, souls.' (20170831 -

I'll give DONUIMUN MUSEUM VILLAGE a similarly unfairly lukewarm review. Mind you, I'm more than ever glad that this section of Gyonam New Town has not been transformed into Gyeonguigung Xii's park (see the Gyonam saga), I was ready for significant changes towards gentrification, and I guess it has become a very pleasant spot for visitors, but. If you knew the place as it used to be, it feels like a caricatural movie set of it, without its main roles. Between the messy old place and this sanitized, manucured village, I wish the cursor had been placed a little more towards the past. I'm really okay with a new central place that transforms the dense eating/drinking cluster into a more open village, but the hanok alleyway where I used to eat has been destroyed and rebuilt, recycling only a few beams, and replacing the most charming curves with anonymous straight lines. And why not keep more vintage bits of walls, the tree that made that eatery's madang so cute, or the wooden windows that made that two story Japanese house so special? I had so much hope when the project started...

It's a bit like Sissel Tolaas' exciting Seoul smellscape (in one of the tallest buildings of that low rise neighborhood), where you can sniff scents captured across the city center, between the DDP and this DMV: smells are synthetized and amplified, not like the original, but a distant echo.

'Sissel Tolaas and her Seoul smellscape in the new Donuimun Museum Village' (20170831 -
Anyway, the site and its expos are definitely worth visiting.
Seoul shall use the space as a guest house hub after the biennale, but I hope it will host future editions as well.

Meanwhile, enjoy this first edition, and this ever changing city of ours!


Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017 (20170901-1105):

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* see among others "Urban Regeneration: 27 Projects For Seoul"
** see "Seoullo 7017, and more roads to Seoul"
*** see "Don't miss Le Corbusier in Seoul... The artist, not the urban planner!"

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Seoullo 7017, and more roads to Seoul

Seoullo 7017 opens tomorrow at 10 a.m. for the public, and at 8 p.m., PARK Won-soon will officially inaugurate the pet project that was to be his launching pad for the 2017 presidential election.

Of course, PARK Geun-hye's impeachment changed the calendar, and Seoul's Mayor didn't last long in the race. But on election night, he managed to hijack MOON Jae-in's podium on Gwanghwamun Square with a mink dance followed hours later by more praise for his fellow school alumni, as part of a call for the new friendly government to support Seoul's future urban plans.

Of course, many projects have already been launched, and Seoullo (formerly known as Seoul Highline / Seoul Arboretum / Seoul Station 7017 ...) was only part of an impressive collection announced two years ago (see "Urban Regeneration: 27 Projects For Seoul").

Seoullo night fever. Where's the disco ball? #Seoullo7017 (Seoullo Blue Night

Furthermore, countless events have already been planned for 2017, culminating with the first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (SIBAU 2017), which will also highlight Donuimun Museum Village, still under renovation (reminder: that was the eatery hotspot initially planned for destruction, next to Gyeonghuigung, to make room for Gyonam New Town's park).

But the city wants to push further in all directions, old and new, such as: 
. a car-free Sadaemun (within the old city walls),
. a cultural hub around Sejong Cultural Center,
. a prolongation of the very successful Gyeongui Line Forest Park all the way to Hangang,
. more urban regeneration in Haengchon-dong (NB that's around Dilkusha, on the other end of Gyeonghuigung Xii / Gyonam New Town)
. ...

A clear focus on 'Gangbuk' vs 'Gangnam', but the latter has been overly supported over the past years, from subways to the COEX-Jamsil hub. As if on cue with the regime change, the city is suddenly announcing 1.34 million more square meters of office space in 53 disadvantaged neighborhoods (Suyu, Jongam, Myeonmok-dong...), regardless of the impacts it could have on a market already facing oversupply... not to mention the impacts on Seoul's cityscape, because urbanism rules would be broken to boost F.A.R. all the way up to 800%, and to allow high rise buildings... 

So let's see how the dialog between City Hall and the Blue House evolves. And let's hope they reopen the old projects of subway lines in underserved areas before the next mayoral elections (a classic, regardless of the mayor's political color).

Meanwhile, why not walk along Seoullo? You'll notice an installation by Hwang Ji-hae featuring 30,000 shoes, a tribute to the old shoemaker's tradition on Yeomcheon Bridge, where you can visit the Oh Shoe Museum. It overlooks the soon-to-be-reopened Seosomun Park on one side, and the railways on the other.
  • See all previous posts related to Seoul Station 7017 (PS managing labels and hashtags would be simpler if they stopped changing names all the time)
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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A new MOON Jae-in?

As expected, MOON Jae-in claimed Cheong Wa Dae with a very comfortable margin even without gaining ground beyond his base, and AHN Cheol-soo failed to hold the center.

As feared, the embarrassingly extreme HONG Jun-pyo finished second, confirming how the ultra-hardcore-conservative line remains a strong political force in the country. YOO Seong-min fought with honor, but reformers need a more charismatic leader to prevail, and to save the right.

To the left, SIM Sang-jung made her case with brilliance and humor, and her moderate voice is more likely to be heard and to bring positive change in the future than the usual radical activists.

In general and except for HONG, the debate was more gentle. This could continue even further with people like AHN Hee-jung.

Now Korea truly needs to move away from polarized politics, and the new president will have to show the way, to foster innovation across politics, society, and the economy. Dialog and innovation being not MOON's forte, he will have to evolve, and to surround himself with not just the old farts he promised jobs in the administration.

Here's how I concluded a piece I wrote last week for Asialyst ("Corée du Sud : la politique reprend ses vieilles habitudes"):
"The winner of the election will be judged by his capacity to revive the economy and to defend the nation in front of rather peculiar characters (Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Donald Trump, Vladimir Poutine…), but also and mostly to reunify South Korea with itself by leveraging last Winter's formidable democratic movement.
If elected, Moon will have to become the uniter he has yet to prove he can be. This majority-less assembly seems a rather sound base to prevent the usual pendulum swings. After all, this assembly already proved it could successfully work in a president-free nation, reaching consensuses on issues as tricky as budget or the impeachment process.
Which brings us back to the core debate initiated during the 'Miracle of The Han People': we can't wait until the 2020 parlementary elections to advance on key issues demanding cool heads, like the revision of the Constitution, or the eradication of corruption in the judiciary system.
It would also be a good opportunity to push an idea that is not yet on the agenda, but would considerably strenghten democracy and depollute this great quinquennal show: switching to a two-round presidential election."

Last time I saw MOON on Gwanghwamun Square was under sadder circumstances (ROH Moo-hyun funeral in 2009 - "A Yellow Sea for Roh Moo-hyun")

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

All options on the table

Many Korean correspondents in DC have recently shared their highest fears ever over risks of war in the Peninsula, and we can only hope that Donald TRUMP's new envoy to Korea, USS Carl Vinson, won't have to grow more talkative than 'Elusivarus Rex' Rex TILLERSON...

All options are on the table

On one hand, it's scary enough to see this short-fused POTUS pull out a new deadly toy in the region just days after striking Syria...

'The Hustler? XI Jinping not comfortable with Trump's 8 ball Syria-North Korea combo (KIM Jong-un unhappy with Syria strikes) - Heng cartoon' (20170410 -
... On the other hand, the US can't find comfort in the fact that the DPRK's ICBMs needs some more time to reach its mainland: KIM Jong-un proved that he could already strike with precision all the US bases in the region, giving its forces a decisive head start when the gimchi hits the fan.

And I feel just a bit less worried now that Steve BANNON will get fewer chances to chime in where it matters most:

Steve BANNON can't always control himself. Please don't let him walk again.
Of course, all this happens less than a month before the elections in South Korea, where victory seems granted to either the untested AHN Cheol-soo, or the divisive MOON Jae-in. Can the former resist G2 pressure (Trump-Xi)? Can the latter be harder than tofu against KJU?

For the moment, even if all options are on the table here as well, MOON confirms that he can't build trust beyond his own base, and that his easiest path to victory lies in the emergence of small candidates dividing the votes. 

AHN Hee-jung trapped in unwinnable primaries and refocusing on 2022, and conservatives failing to find a champion, Cheol-soo quickly and effortlessly gathered across the aisle the Anyone-But-Moon front, and toughened up enough to show that this time he will go all the way. Recent polls give him the lead in both 5 and 6 candidates scenarii:

'For the first time, a poll with 6 candidates shows AHN Cheol-soo ahead of MOON Jae-in (Chosun Ilbo). Later still can't reach beyond own base' (20170409 -
'Yonhap-KBS poll with 5 candidates confirms AHN Cheol-soo's lead over MOON Jae-in. <20 a="" href="" no="" regional="" rifts="" target="_blank" undecided="">' (20170410 -
For the moment, HONG Jun-pyo, SIM Sang-jung, and YOO Seong-min don't syphon many votes out of the AHN wave. As he focuses on attacking MOON, KIM Chong-in could become more audible, but he doesn't represent the future either.

Interesting to see the latest poll* in detail:
- the traditional age rifts diminish (the younger generation still favor MOON, but less than before, and 'only' until 50)
- the traditional regional rifts seems less relevant (AHN leads in Jeolla-do - where he claimed many seats - and Gwangju as well as in conservative strongholds - Daegu and Gyeongsang-do rally behind him)
- fewer than 20% remain undecided

It will be more about character and issues than ideology. So get ready for April surprises.

A positive April surprise would be the arrest of WOO Byung-woo. Korean justice needs to be purged from its enemies from within, but compromission is so pervasive that many could fall, and one can wonder if judges and prosecutors will have the courage to open Pandora's box. 

Still better than a nuclear explosion. And as the myth goes, hope appears only after all evils have been released from the box. 

But as the percentage of judges who keep heading for the same friendly structures after retirement tells us, the capacity to achieve total success looks like the ultimate myth.

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* "Ahn beats Moon for first time in hypothetical five-way race: poll" (Yonhap News 20170410)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weapons of Mass Distraction

If Robert Kelly's adorable kids crashed his BBC interview, their cute videobombing provided a welcomed distraction from KIM Jong-un's WMDs, Cheon Wa Dae's implosion, or China's nuclear reaction to THAAD.

Korea definitely needs to embrace this joyful, multicultural youth coming in peace, but, like Kelly, we also need to keep our eye on the ball. Or rather on juggling balls that tend to multiply and to become highly explosive.

On one hand, many uncertainties seem to have been lifted: PARK Geun-hye's impeachment succeeded brilliantly, she meets her prosecutors tomorrow, a date has been set for the presidential election, conservatives all but gave up 2017*, and MOON Jae-in doesn't appear to lose ground in the polls (this morning RealMeter added 1.5 pts to both him and his main rival AHN Hee-jung, but fifty days before May 9, and even less before party primaries, the latter lags 21 points behind the former).

On the other hand, Korea's beautiful political moment and national unity receded as the old political barnum returned. Pro-PARK factions hijacked the Taegukgi, PARK herself formed a shadow cabinet of fellow hardcore deniers, and MOON tried to revive the Sewol's instrumentalization by tying it to the impeachment the very day the Constitutional Court explicitely confirmed that April 16 couldn't be used to justify PGH's eviction. Still struggling to pass for a uniter, the front runner has yet to reassure many voters about his positions regarding North Korea and national security.

BTW if the Trump Administration were clear enough to say that strategic patience was BAD and OVER, they have yet to say what they will replace it with. I guess something between Elusivarus Rex (Rex Tillerson's No Presser Mode), and Twitterrence (Trump's Twitter Deterrence). 

Anyway, South Korea's subtle balancing act between the US and China has been shaken and stirred by the THAAD crisis, whose impacts went from political to economic to social: in Korean minds, the favorability of China has now fallen even behind Japan's (see this excellent report from the Asan Institute: "Changing Tides: THAAD and Shifting Korean Public Opinion toward the United States and China"). China's retaliation came on top of an already weakened economy, which may face further shocks following the Fed's rate hikes (e.g. something's gotta give with this massive household debt).

As questions of survival reclaim the top of our agendas, can the great promises of last Fall survive this Spring? That hope for a reunited society, that hope for a deep and sound debate about the constitution, that hope for an eradication of corruption, that hope for a 'mani pulite' operation liberating justice from WOO Byung-woo and his friends...?

Yes let's keep our eye on the ball, and yes let's also let the kids roll in. In the end, it's all about them.

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* HWANG Kyo-ahn withdrew his candidacy (... and HONG Seok-hyeon from JoongAng Ilbo - could he be considering a bid in 2022?) 

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