Tuesday, January 18, 2011


One of the things that surprised me when I moved from a self-contained and somewhat isolated one-room apartment into a large apartment block, was the speaker on the wall from which the building's janitors/security guards would issue pronouncements from their bunker far below. The disembodied voice - with its Orwellian overtones - which can suddenly cut into any conversation or private moment and can not be switched off, has continued to be one of the more disconcerting aspects of living in a Korean high-rise community. But it also has a comedic value that I fear I will never truly appreciate until I am fully conversant in Korean.

Sometimes the reason for amusement is subtle - advice is dispensed carrying a chastising undertone of things the residents have done wrong and should not do again. And sometimes the reason is more overt and quite possibly alcohol-related, although to be fair, the disembodied voice has only become so slurred on one occasion that my fellow Korean-speaking prisoners could not understand it either. By comparison the series of announcements that began on Saturday were at least comprehensible, if delivered in a rather uncertain and rambling fashion.

The speaker told us that our building's pipes were frozen, and we should not use our taps. Then later it was OK to use the taps but not the sinks. Then certain sections of the block were clear to use everything, and others weren't. And so it went on through the afternoon, as one imagined the Korean equivalent of the Mario video game character running around desperately from one crisis to the next. Later, when my wife got to the checkout of the local mart, the assistant asked noted the lack of bottled water in her cart and asked if she wasn't buying any. They were running out of water, demand had been so heavy. The apartment announcements continued into Sunday.

I had been surprised to turn on my computer screen on Saturday morning to find Ubuntu's weather applet telling me it was -8 degrees Celsius outside. Surely some mistake I thought. But in fact, temperatures had hit -12.8 in Busan overnight, the lowest here in 96 years according to the JoongAng Daily, although the problems with water pipes were clearly much worse in Seoul, causing problems for Korea's often low-profile poor. Even the higher-profile middle-classes, who are in no danger of freezing to death, are feeling the effects of the cold - with the government imploring them to cut back on their electricity usage as underfloor heating usage saps the capacity of South Korea's power stations. Evidently however, it is a call falling of deaf ears.

Even we finally succumbed and turned on our underfloor heating for the first time since moving here last week, but it didn't work. It transpired that - according to the plumber who came out to fix the problem and turned out to be very familiar with our building's problems - the construction company didn't put the right amount of anti-freeze in the heating pipes seven years ago, leading to many of the underfloor boiler pumps becoming damaged when they tried to move the semi-frozen water. While the freezing problem has long since been solved, the damage caused to the boilers apparently hasn't, leading to new residents discovering the issue the first time they tried to use their heating. Fortunately, our plumber fixed the problem.

As for the weather, unless you've had one of those diseducations (sic) which are so popular in the West these days, especially in America, you probably accept that climate change - whatever factors are causing it - is gradually leading to more extreme weather events. So Busan's coldest temperatures in 96 years are not incompatible with the claim from the National Institute of Environmental Research here that Korea's temperature could rise by 2.2 to 4.2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, although apparently this means that by 2040 the streets of Seoul could be lined with tangerine trees. It's not clear to me that there's a particularly high national demand for tangerines in Korea, and why therefore this is seen as an advantage, but that's what they said. Presumably if it's that warm in Seoul, the higher temperatures in the south will mean Haeundae Beach will stretch inland to Seomyeon. Or that's how they'll probably spin the desertification of Busan, at least.

In fact, last summer had the highest number of 'tropical nights' in ten years, and perhaps mindful of that Lotte Department Store is already doing a brisk - and apparently rationed - trade in selling aircon units for the summer.

When I first arrived in Korea I marvelled at the fact I could wear a t-shirt in October, and I was willing to accept the constant Korean assertion that this country has four seasons. Five, if you count the Yellow Dust season. But perhaps it's a sign that I'm becoming acclimatised because I'm increasingly feeling that recently Korea has just gravitated between very hot and very cold.

Personally, having grown up in a Northern English gulag, snow reminds me of home and I'm rather partial to it. Plus I'm sure it would look wonderful on the nearby mountain which dominates the view from my office. Unfortunately for me this is yet another year of no snow in Busan, although it has tried a couple of times at least, which is more than I can say for previous years. But it's best to hope for warmer weather, because the cold isn't doing anyone - not least the poor - any favours.

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