Sunday, May 30, 2010


There is a civil defence drill here around the 15th of every month. The authorities put out flags a day or two beforehand to remind people. Now that the puppet regime in North Korea is threatening to attack South Korea again - in the past it has threatened to turn it into a sea of fire amongst other things, the drills take on a slightly more ominous feel.

Sometimes I don't hear the sirens - it depends where I am. If fact, it's a given that if I'm in the subway or even in a store I won't know anything about it. One person told me that she never hears it in her school where she works, and I never used to hear it in my old apartment which seemed to be positioned in a place where the warning coverage wasn't very good. One would hope that because of South Korea's love of technology, in the event of a real threat in addition to sounding the sirens the Government would have a system in place to text everyone, but I'm not sure that they do.

There is no such danger of not hearing the sirens in the apartment I live in now. And because it overlooks the main road into the centre of the city, every month I watch the entertainment unfold as the sirens sound and civil defence ajummas march into the middle of the lanes and, armed with little more than a whistle and looks that could turn flesh to stone, attempt to cajole drivers into pulling over to the side of the road. This almost always works, because they have to, but as you might expect, for some motorists the challenge is to get as far as possible before they dare not go further. I've seen cars speed past the ajummas on occasion well into the drill, soliciting the dirtiest of looks from them undiluted by my high vantage point. I'm not entirely convinced that if the sirens ever sound in anger drivers are going to be quite so well behaved and pull into the side of the road to possibly die, when their gut instinct is to get home to their families as quickly as possible.

Last month once the sirens had stopped I noticed something new. It was incredibly quiet. So quiet in fact, that I could hear birds singing. That was practically a new experience in Busan, where wildlife is largely confined to the mountains. As birdsong echoed through the valley we live in, it struck me that this must have been a beautiful place once before someone dropped a city on it.

This month there was something new again. The sirens were different. They seemed to have changed from the air-raid type sound familiar from the Second World and Cold Wars, into something more akin to a police siren, with a different pitch and a more rapid cycle. I was a little disappointed - I felt it lacked the menace of the Soviet attack warnings I grew up with, but later it transpired it was actually a natural disaster drill, and the sirens were for tsunamis and earthquakes. I'm not actually sure how you sound a siren to warn for an earthquake though – but that's what they said.

Despite its proximity to Japan, Busan is not particularly directly prone to earthquakes, which is just as well considering the dubious build quality of our apartment block. However, with climate change turning the waters off the southern coast we live on subtropical, the Korea Hydrographic and Oceanographic Administration (KHOA) are warning us of worse typhoons and tsunamis in future. Unfortunately, typhoons are a very real threat here as are tsunamis caused by major earthquakes close to Japan.

Telling the two types of sirens apart then is actually quite important, as in principle it's the difference between heading down into the civil defence shelters otherwise known as the subway system, versus heading for high ground. (In practice however it's not quite that simple anyway - the subway system might not be the best move in the event of a chemical attack where the gas is heavier than air and sinks).

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Puppet Masters

It seems odd to go on writing about my life in Korea without mentioning current events. Last Thursday the results of an international investigation found that four weeks ago North Korea attacked and sank the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan, with the loss of 46 lives.

North Korea has, over the years, previously attacked South Korean military vessels, launched a 31-man commando raid on the President's residence in Seoul, attacked a Presidential delegation in Burma killing the South Korean Foreign Minister amongst others, blown up a South Korean passenger plane, launched a disasterous spying mission in 1996, kidnapped Japanese citizens from the Japanese mainland - although at least they eventually got an apology - and generally made a mockery of international agreements and the international community at every available opportunity. These are merely the edited highlights of North Korean provocations. Which is why most people in Korea have reacted to the latest incident with a certain stoicism. One must be careful of reading too much into the South Korean media in these times, but I would concur that there has been little panic buying in the shops either in Busan or – I understand from my social network – in Seoul. This is not to say people are unaffected. A friend in Seoul who has a young baby said that at the moment she has no enthusiasm for her job – all she wants to do is be at home with her child now. There are more police on the subways, possibly due to the recent capture of a North Korean spy and the information she obtained about the Seoul Metro, and the underlying tension is just that little bit higher. Despite this, bizarrely, North Korea has still demanded that South Korea's SBS network give it a free World Cup television feed and pay for Northern journalists to attend the football tournament this summer.

It's said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. We paid a high price once in my country for appeasing a ruthless dictator. In retrospect, South Korea may have repeated that mistake with its 'Sunshine Policy'. It's tempting to have hoped that North Korea would have gone down the Chinese road of economic development, but this perhaps ignores the reality that the Chinese Communist Party is somewhat meritocratic and these days, pragmatic. North Korea is more akin to a feudal dictatorship, with hereditary succession where the leader is often raised to the status of a God. Our mistake has been to believe that Kim Jong-Il would do the logical thing, but ego and internal politics in dictatorships is rarely about logic.

I've been part of that mistake too. Back in the naive 'Sunshine' days I invested in a company called Aminex which had done a deal to explore for oil in Northern territory. That saga still goes on, with a deal on the Eastern sea – the place where North Korean submarines disappear - being signed despite the latest crisis. Needless to say, I've come to see that move as a mistake, and now don't believe in supporting a dictatorship in any way when it will spend the foreign currency it receives on weapons which might eventually kill me and my family. I've also considered not buying Chinese-made goods or investing in China any more on the principle that North Korea is increasingly a puppet state of China and protectorate at the UN Security Council. But it's a problematic position, because if South Koreans rose up as a whole and boycotted China in protest, it may push China into nationalist outrage. But if we all continue to do business with them, are we once again travelling down the road of appeasement with another dictatorship?

And how much do South Koreans care anyway? Believe it or not despite all this, a recent Gallup Korea survey revealed that if North Korea invades the South, apparently 25.7% of respondents are against the Government immediately exercising its right to self-defence. You read that correctly - allegedly one-quarter of South Koreans don't want to fight back. This might be because they don't want to be conscripted or because they want to just talk to the attackers. The allegation that many young people have no idea who started the Korean War may be a contributory factor. Still, I find it inexplicable.

Right now, I've done nothing about the situation, which is surprising for a financial trader. We tend to think in terms of offsetting risk – hedging our positions for worst case scenarios – and that makes us financial survivalists. That sense of survivalism often extends into the real world, where it seems we are the first to buy masks during viral outbreaks, store emergency food, water and equipment. It's not always the direct problem we fear so much as the collapse in infrastructure that leaves people short of basic essentials. And gone down that road too in the past, but despite the vague risk that conflict could break out at any minute, this time I've done nothing to prepare for it. Yes, Busan's distance from the border puts it in a much more fortunate position than Seoul, but since any war is likely to be fought asymmetrically by the North, it would be a mistake to believe that we are safe here. And a widespread infrastructural collapse will carry its own implications.

Another reason why I really haven't addressed this is that I've been extremely busy of late for various reasons, and life goes on. Preparing for a war is some way down my list of things to do, which is my judgement on the probabilities involved. If conflict breaks out that will prove to be a bad trade. This is the slightly surreal nature of life in Korea right now – it feels like the Cold War all over again. Will the sirens one day sound in anger?

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Choir

The day after the French Comedy I found myself at the Geumjeong Cultural Center ('금정문화회관') in Busan - I believe that around half the districts in the city have their own cultural centre - for a performance by the Busan Metropolitan City Chorus.

Unlike the French Comedy, which had cost 22,500 won per ticket (about £13/$20), tickets to see the Busan Chorus were a mere 1,000 won (59 pence/88 cents) - a special promotion as part of the event's proximity to Children's Day on May 5th and Parents' Day on May 8th. This meant that the tickets only cost us 10 won more than the price of the forty-five minute subway journey to get there.

When I write about the costs of cultural events in Korea I usually add the equivalent British Pounds and US Dollar amounts to provide some context. However, an additional factor is that the average salary in South Korea is lower - according to the IMF in 2009 the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of the US in dollar terms was approximately $46,000, the UK was $35,000 and South Korea was $28,000. Furthermore, there is a large diversity of incomes in Korea, with Korea's income gap by gender being the largest in the OECD, many people earning less than the minimum wage - not just the young in my experience - and over 3 million Korean households being classed as living in poverty. In other words, attending cultural events may well be largely in the domain of the better off, which is why cultural initiatives priced to be more inclusive is, in principle, such a good idea.

Unfortunately, the price didn't translate into audience numbers in practice - vast areas of seats were empty by the time the performance was scheduled to begin. It crossed my mind that the 1,000 won pricing may have actually devalued the experience. My wife had been a little under the weather due to her pregnancy, and even we had paused to reconsider our attendance beforehand, which had the tickets been more expensive we likely wouldn't have.

So when fifty choir members walked out onto the stage, it was sadly entirely possible that they outnumbered the audience, meaning that unlike the previous day at the French Comedy, if they decided to rush us we were in trouble. I felt rather sorry for them, but if conductor Kim Kangkyu ('김강규') was discouraged he didn't show it as he proceeded to talk the audience through the various pieces with the enthusiasm and smile of a true believer. It was quite infectious.

And the Busan Metropolitan City Chorus seemed equally determined. I have to admit, the 1,000 won pricing had not served to build up any high expectations in my mind, and it wasn't what I expected in a half-empty district cultural centre a little off the beaten track. As they launched into a beautiful rendition of Caro mio ben I thought "Who are these people, and what are they doing here?"

The Chorus was not merely going to limit itself to some arias though, as it broke out of the opera genre and into a rousing and surprising rendition of the Scottish classic Loch Lomand. I thought I detected a couple of 'lubs' rather than 'loves' in there, but generally it sounded for all the world as though they were singing in a Scottish accent. If I'd closed my eyes I could have almost imagine the aftermath of an English rugby defeat. To provide some balance, England's Down by the Salley Gardens was also part of the brief choral tour of the Disunited Kingdom.

The varied repertoire next took us through Germany's Morgen! and Von ewiger Liebe, before returning to more familiar Italian territory with Tosti's La Serenata, and L'Ultima Canzone. The performances were good and I felt more than a little guilty afterwards that we'd considered not attending, because it would have been unfortunate to have missed it.

I was sorry for the choir in that they probably outnumbered the audience, but I learned later that they'd recorded a CD and appeared at more mainstream venues many times, so the day's rather limited audience was probably nothing more than an aberration.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


It's been clear to me for some time that the Korean maternity experience differs radically from the British one. One important respect in which this difference manifests itself is postnatal care - it isn't uncommon for a new mother to spend two to four weeks at the hospital's 'sanhujoriwon' (산후조리원') postnatal/postpartum clinic recuperating in Korea. By comparison, the National Health Service hospital in one British city states the average length of stay in their postnatal beds in 2009 was 1.2 days.

I went to the Maternity Hospital with my wife for a scheduled ultrasound, and after the scan we went up several floors to look at the postnatal suite. British hospitals tend to comprise of one or more sprawling low-rise buildings in their own grounds, whereas the smaller more specialised Korean hospitals often tend to occupy office buildings, and are easy to miss amidst all the other explosive activity of a typical Korean street. So stepping out of the elevator on the 8th floor, I expected the usual reception area and office-style rows of corridors leading off to various rooms. Instead there was nothing except a separate glass door, through which one could see an image which very much conveyed the message that you were now leaving the clinically sanitised hospital environment for something less dehumanising - beyond was a lounge with a TV on the wall, some couches with refreshments, and a colourful timetable on the wall with cartoon headlines promising treatments, massages, exercises and other activities. A narrow staircase led upwards to some uncertain destination. It was uncomfortably hot - apparently because of the recommended postnatal recovery temperature, otherwise known as 'slow cook'. It's a traditional Korean belief that new mothers should cover themselves with blankets and keep warm in order to protect them from 'loose bones' - failure to do so results in arthritis and rheumatism in older age.

We had to remove our shoes to proceed, emphasising the notion that we were transcending from a public environment to a domestic one. We were led upstairs, to be shown three types of room in which my wife could stay. The first comprised of a bed, a couch, a large LCD television and a desk with an Internet-connected computer, with a door to a separate private bathroom on one side of the room. The slightly cheaper rooms progressively lost the couch and the desk, so that the most economical option potentially had you surfing the Internet from the heated floor. The difference between the cheapest and most expensive rooms was 150,000 won per week (£87/$130), and the most expensive option was 800,000 won per week (£475/$718). I thought it best to go for the most expensive room, given that they were bigger and carried less risk of going stir crazy, especially considering that the view from most rooms extends approximately three feet out to the side of the next building, hence the prevalence of frosted glass. Also, since husbands are expected to stay overnight with their wives, more space is better, and I'd prefer to sleep on the couch rather than the floor.

I noticed something odd though. We'd looked at three rooms with three rather dazed and disconnected looking occupants, but where were the babies? It transpired they were all three floors below us being cared for. This was not what I had expected - to my mind this was supposed to be an important bonding time between mother and child, yet it seemed that the Korean approach involved separating the two for most of their postnatal stay in the hospital. Yes, when the baby needs feeding the mother is called down immediately to do this, but otherwise mother and baby are not together. As my wife sat discussing room options I was left pondering the Korean method and what they knew that I didn't, given that my initial reaction was that the idea was extraordinarily bad. At least it transpired that our 'sanhujoriwon' was not as strict as the one in Seoul whose head said "Mothers are not allowed to touch or hold other babies, we have strict visiting hours and don't even let the grandparents hold the baby."

We went down to see the newborn baby care facilities. This time on stepping out of the elevator we were confronted by a large artificial tree surrounded by a bench, behind which a glass wall separated this small island of faux-nature with a brightly-lit scene which could easily have been straight from a science-fiction movie. Four rows of perspex baby cots were lined up, ten per row, with three nurses moving around changing and checking the slowly stirring occupants. A separate control-room appeared to be situated off to the right. I felt the brightness was hurting my eyes but perhaps you get used to it. I watched a nurse change a baby. It was quick, functional, and not exactly gentle. The baby started crying, which elicited no reaction whatsoever from its carer - she finished and moved on. This did nothing to convince me that separating mother and baby was a good idea, but I understand that the separation may allow time for the mother to recover from childbirth, and it does provide round-the-clock monitoring and care for the babies.

The whole recovery issue though is an interesting one in Korea. Barring a sudden advancement of science or an unexpected alien abduction I'm never likely to experience childbirth, so I'm not really in a position to comment, but the impression seems to be given here that after giving birth a Korean woman's body is 'shattered', bones are fragile, and generally great care must be taken to bring her back from the brink of existence.

In the UK nobody I knew had stayed in hospital for anything like the extended period that appears to be the norm in Korea, and more than that the impression isn't created that women's bodies are completely broken from the experience to the point at which they should be relieved of any involvement in caring for their babies. It crossed my mind that keeping forty women in hospital at 800,000 won per week is probably a pretty good business, although this isn't to say it's necessarily a bad thing. But assuming there are no complications, my cultural background has clearly conditioned me to expect a much reduced recovery time to the one which my wife was envisaging.

This issue is a potential cultural battle which any sensible Western husband is going to carefully avoid with their Korean wife - so I told my wife it's entirely her decision how long she stays in hospital for. She has to weigh up the advantages of the rest and postnatal care versus the potential loss of immediate bonding, actual quality of care and the formal complaints which have been raised.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


Another weekend another festival. This time it was the Busan International Performing Arts Festival, or 'BIPAF'. Invariably all festivals in Busan are inexplicably 'International', but this one genuinely warrants the name in that it involved productions from France, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, Russia, as well as Korea. We travelled to the 'Busan Cultural Center' in Daeyeondong, Namgu, to see a performance unambiguously titled 'Comedy' by the - according to the announcer beforehand - 'world famous' Nasser Martin-Gousset Company otherwise known as 'La Maison'. I can't speak to the veracity of this claim, but Nasser Martin Gousset does at least have a page on the French version of Wikipedia.

I'm still at the stage in Korea where I'm not necessarily clear on exactly where we are going until I get there, so I was surprised to find that the Cultural Center was perched on a hill overlooking the U.N. Cemetery which I've seen in passing before, but have yet to actually visit despite it being on my list of places to go. On a clear day the views over the city must be good - but this wasn't quite one of them. Busan has very few perfectly clear days in my experience.

The complex itself seems impressive, though I had little time to look around. There's a small park on one side of the grounds, for once reminiscent of a proper English park rather than being a codeword for 'somewhere that hasn't been built on yet'. The large buildings and their positioning relative to the city suggest that this is a place where culture is taken seriously, so Busan did well there.

The production itself seemed to begin in the manner one might expect of a traditional farce. A theft is attempted before the stage gives way to a party, complete with live jazz musicians who play at various points through the performance. The performers do well to bring the supposed 1960's atmosphere to life, but there came a point at which I began to wonder whether it was really funny. Korean humour is not, in my experience, generally noted for its subtlety, and if I, coming from a country noted for its sometimes dark, dry and often odd sense of humour, didn't get it, I wondered how the Koreans were faring. It's tempting as an English person sat feet away from fifteen French people to feel some affinity towards them - we are geographical neighbours after all - but by the time proceedings drew to a close, I was questioning the cultural divide between us was larger than the narrowness of 'La Manche' suggested.

There was a question and answer session after the end, and my wife wondered whether we should stay. It had at least been interesting, and for an event subtitled 'Defining the Boundaries of Theatre', this goal had certainly been attained in the mixing of a stage-play and live jazz music in a performance with an apparently unapologetically disjointed narrative, titled and pitched as something it might not quite be. I'm not going to pretend though - sometimes you just have to call it - it didn't click for me. Maybe that's because it strayed into "L'art pour l'art" - Art for Art's Sake - and being from both a working class and science background I need to find meaning in what I see. Perhaps I'm just not qualified to offer a critique.

The first question was not so much a question as a statement - a man stood up and said that the performance was called 'Comedy' and it was pitched as a comedy, but it didn't seem funny. A horrific silence momentarily descended over the theatre as the translator faced the reality of having to translate that. I wondered whether the BIPAF organisers had been remiss in their descriptions, because they certainly had been when they told a friend of ours it was fine to bring her ten-year old daughter - possible drug-taking, nudity in obvious silhouette behind a lit screen, simulated sex in closets, questionable acts of intimacy in public, cigar smoke wafting over the audience, all mixed with alcohol abuse and stabbings with scissors, might not be what you would ordinary choose to expose your child to. Personally, most of that's more my level, and I always welcome public displays of suggested homosexuality in the hope it encourages greater tolerance. But the director stood his ground, and follow-up questions pressed the issue. Sat in the second row, I felt trapped in the middle of a cultural clash, the mood of which might well be dangerously deteriorating, and even though there were fifteen performers - the most foreigners I've ever seen together in my time in Korea - I comforted myself in the belief that if they rushed us the remaining audience could probably fight them off.

The truth is it must be hard to face the cultural divide after working so hard for ninety minutes, and I really felt for them. It seems the French just can't catch a break in this country. Still, there is one stereotype in which English people radically differ from their French neighbours - our supposed 'stiff-upper lip' forces us to hide our true feelings in the face of adversity - something I find to be an extremely important survival attribute in Korea. French people on the other hand, have a rather delightful if possibly misunderstood reputation for not always hiding their unhappiness. I noticed immediately once the questions began, but said nothing. The Koreans in our party noticed anyway. Somehow the photo I took of the question and answer session reminded me of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, and the mood was about as ominous.

5,600 miles is a long way to travel to be told you're not funny. I know.

The clash of cultures continued as Korea's hierarchical society next wanted each performer to state their age. One lady answered 'twelve'. Bravo!

Fortunately some less controversial questions and statements were made, and then the mood was somewhat salvaged by the Asian performer on the stage. She was asked via the translator if she was Korean. Logically, the chances of this were astronomically low despite the Korean-Wave belief that Koreans might in fact be secretly involved in every facet of society overseas. But she was. This was a major revelation for almost everyone concerned, including it seemed, our Korean translator who had seemed to struggle in her role. The Korean-French performer then largely took over the answering of questions, the mood warmed up, everyone left more placated and a fight was avoided.