Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shall We Dance

One of the reasons the new Hi-Mart near us was so noisy was the almost constant thudding noise of Korean techno music. And there was a reason - it gave the girls something to dance to...

It seems that when electrical stores - and as far as I can tell, it is particularly electrical stores which are prone to this - want to make a big sales push, half-naked girls are positioned outside dancing to a loud beat. Apparently this helps sell TVs. Perhaps it really does, as hundreds of ajeoshis drive by thinking 'must buy high-def'.

The photos above are actually outside a branch of Samsung, which hasn't just opened, but clearly still subscribes to the sex-sells school of marketing. Or maybe it's meant to be an artistic thing. In the background a machine blows air through an inflatable figure of some description - another regular fixture outside these stores.

Back at Hi-Mart another two girls (and they always seem to be in twos for some reason), are more modestly dressed, but if anything are creating more of a visual effect with their neon-lit dancing pads.

But whereas the Samsung girls had the look of 'contractual obligations' about them, the Hi-Mart team seemed to be having more fun, flashing V-signs at anyone who looked at them on the road and also apparently me when I was taking this video. It can't be an easy job though - during my time in Korea I've been passed a number of times in stores by dancing girls heading for a break and they look often look sweaty and exhausted, and I can't imagine that it's made any easier by the traffic fumes they have to breathe in while cycling through their moves.

I was invited to a high-school show last year by a Korean friend who's a teacher. The school is vocational in nature and specialises in various kinds of performing arts, and there were clearly a number of girls who aspired to be dancers. At the time I wondered whether there was that much dance work available but I reckoned without the shopping jobs. It's not the stuff of careers though as there's definitely an age limit in operation - you don't see any women older than this trying to entice you into an ill-considered consumer experience.

Failed low-light photos are a constant headache with my compact camera, but somehow this one, for me (aside from being a pretty good representation of how I see things when I have a Meniere's attack), seems to capture the spirit of the dance and possibly Korea itself all at once.

Korean tags: 가게, 소음, 사다, 여자, 무용하다

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Shop Around the Corner

Recently a new branch of Hi-mart, an electrical goods chain, opened near us. Too near - their constant appeals for customers during their first few days left me feeling a little like I lived in some kind of totalitarian state demanding obedience to the Party. Or maybe I do - except the Party here stands for ideological consumerism.

Even if they hadn't been giving away a few high-priced electrical items and a couple of hundred USB memory sticks to begin with, the next few days suggested they wouldn't have had any trouble bringing people in, and clearly this wasn't mere browsing; from the queues at the tills they were making good money, even if they were shutting at 9pm which by the standards of some stores is quite early in Korea.

What struck me as slightly odd about this was that this new store opened at all. Back in the UK, electrical chains have been closing down small stores partly in favour of consolidating at larger sites, and partly in favour of moving to the Internet. One former fixture of the British high street, Dixons, has in fact moved entirely to the web now. Retail rents are high and margins are wafer-thin so it makes a lot of sense to shift to a lower-cost strategy if you can get away with it - which is a tough proposition when British people still show some reluctance to make major purchases online.

One might have thought that by comparison Koreans would have been more willing to buy electrical items on the Internet, and given that Hi-mart was founded in 1993 (edit: or was it 1999?) - compared to Dixons 1937 - it's not as though they have a large number of legacy stores to try and make work. But evidently, opening new retail space can be profitable, and while stores back home retreat from the high-street to the Internet, for some reason, if anything the opposite may be true in Korea.

Korean tags: 가게, 소음, 사다

Monday, October 29, 2007

Lucky Break

This is from Naver, and a web address entitled "Baby Study" (the Korean reads 'baby world'). Well, there's nothing wrong with starting children off learning English at a very young age, but are they really this advanced? If you want to know the answer to "What's that smell?", visit the page - you may be surprised...

Korean tags: 언어, 영어, 아이, 공부

Sunday, October 28, 2007


When I was learning the Japanese language one of the peripheral if intended consequences was gaining an understanding of the culture which sat behind it. Singular words such as tatemae and honne speak to a far greater psychology and collective experience than a simple dictionary definition can provide. Understanding that, while I have served other masters from time to time, I fundamentally gravitate towards a ronin existence - and this is before I got exiled by my government - allows me to stick a label on my subconscious motivations and understand the potential consequences; the realities of which are far removed from any romanticised notions.

In truth I've barely scratched the surface of the Korean language and the only word I've encountered so far similarly loaded with meaning is 기분 ('kibun'), which a dictionary will tell you translates as 'feelings/mood/humor' but which in reality means much more. Like tatemae and honne, it can explain a lot to a confused Westerner about why people here sometimes behave the way they do.

I had quite a number of Japanese friends to help me with my studies, and I soaked up everything I could about Japan, but I was hardly surrounded by material, and it was tough. I watched NHK news which used to broadcast its news programme unscrambled in Europe, and I read the Asahi and Yomiuri Shimbun web sites regularly. My language studies eventually stalled with a vocabulary of around 1,400 words - but I did learn a lot about Japanese politics.

When I came to Korea, I had the opposite of my Japanese experience - the quantity of material was overwhelming, and it was all I could do to make sense of that between trying to juggle my virtual life on the London Stock Exchange and running around Korea in a generally confused or bemused state. I had little time to take an interest in what was happening in wider Korean society beyond my own sphere of existence, but it would also be true to say that part of me was afraid to know; Korea can often project an image of being angry - angry at Japan, angry at China, angry at Americans, angry at the rest of the world, angry at foreign teachers, angry at history itself, which to be fair often hasn't really dealt the Korean people a good hand, although with no apparent statute of limitations on things that go back hundreds of years one wonders how justice can ever be seen to be done. There are times when ignorance is bliss, and I didn't want too many of my comfortable illusions about my temporary home shattered by the reality of the hatred that is out there bubbling away under the surface.

As I have slowly got my bearings though the time came when I had to start taking an interest in wider Korean society and developments, and in a sense, no study of the language - something which I've been taking more seriously of late - can be complete without this understanding. To this end I now read the English-language newspapers here every day and bookmark the stories I find interesting using, which should help me to build up a better picture of this society.

The Korea Herald has recently started a thirty part series on huge topic of social change in Korea. Here are parts one and two. Amongst other things part two discusses the 'psychology of han', which I think bears quoting here, because it speaks to so much of the Korean experience:

"The psychology of 'han': One aspect of the human element that cannot be omitted in the discussion of Korean behavior relative to modernization and economic growth is the psychologically motivating factors. Outstanding and unique in Korea is the psychology of han. This word cannot be literally translated into English, but it involves a sense of frustration, remorse, and revenge which are caused by certain unjustified deeds. When such feelings are accumulated in the psyche, one has to release the tension in some way, and, if unleashed in a negative way, this can cause "frost even in the middle of summer," especially for women, as the old saying goes. Channeled in a positive direction, this psychic force can lead to very productive results. The Korean nation has historically accumulated a strong sense of han, owing to so much bashing by powerful neighbors. Yet we have retained a unitary national identity so relentlessly that when this han feeling was directed into the positive channels of economic growth and modernization, it was able to lead to miraculous development in a short period of time, and has played a central role in restoring Koreans` national pride."

- Korea Herald, 2007-10-26

Korean tags: 신문, 언어, 공부, 기분, 심리학

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Darkness Ascending

When we went to Busan Fireworks Festival last November, I couldn't have imagined that almost one year on we'd be still here to wonder about attending this year's event. Well we are due to events beyond our control, but we decided to give it a miss. Even though this year's event was spread over two days, memories of the cold and the crowds were still fresh enough in our memories. But thoughts of Gwangalli Beach and Gwangan Bridge led to a suggestion going up Hwangryeong Mountain at the weekend, where spectacular night views of Gwangan, Haeundae and in fact much of Busan were promised, subject to atmospheric conditions which, it has to be said, are normally less than ideal here, even when China's noxious cloud of double-digit GDP growth isn't surpassing the local pollution. So when Sunday came and the air was crystal clear, it really seemed like we were in luck.

Unlike most mountains in Busan, it's possible to drive up Hwangryeong which is quite convenient if you want a quick fix of cityscape without the effort involved in actual physical exercise to achieve it. Which is not to say there is no effort involved, particularly if you have a compact digital camera rather than a more low-light friendly DSLR. The photos above were taken along the road near the top, and even though they're not very good they hopefully give a sense of what can be seen. On a reasonably clear evening the Fireworks Festival must be an interesting sight from the mountain, and it has the advantage of not having to sit on a cold beach for two hours beforehand.

In fact it's not actually possible to drive all the way to the top, so after parking the car we had to walk for about ten minutes to reach the summit. There is some debate about whether access to the summit is actually allowed, since it involves walking up a road closed with a barrier leading to a communications tower and connected building, beyond which lie some pathways and a raised concreted area with what look like vents at the peak - suggesting it serves some purpose other than a viewing platform, which is what people actually use it for. The lack of lighting also suggests this isn't exactly intended for the public - as darkness fell we found our way up with our friend's mobile phone, which has a built in emergency light.

There were about ten other people at the top. The 360-degree views in almost complete darkness really are something to see, but since developing Meniere's heights often make me sick, and I guess anyone with a fear of heights might want to give the experience a miss.

It's not only very dark at the summit, but also on parts of the road on the way down. So there are cars parked suspiciously every thirty meters or so along the edge, with seats down, steamed up or covered back windows, and the occasional light on inside. It's cheaper than a love hotel but I would have thought ripe for blackmail in this Internet-based society - camera, licence-plate, and a 'is this your husband's car?' page on Daum. Actually, I'm sure the TV channel that endlessly re-enacts Korean affairs and portrays their discovery as really happening live in front of the cameras would buy the idea.

We needed coffee and ended up at Starbucks on the beachfront opposite Gwangan Bridge. Three floors means a good chance of a decent view, but as it turns out is no guarantee of a decent photo, so it looks like this, more or less. Free wi-fi means a number of students were immersed in their small laptops and assignments at the tables.

It seemed as though local council workers or the tide had done a good job of clearing the beach, as there was little evidence that thousands of people had spent several hours encamped here the day before. Mysteriously, a light on a nearby building scrolled messages along the beach, such as the two above approximately translate as:

A wind does not leave a noise afterwards.', and the eerily more appropriate:
'To climb a mountain you must endure a slope.' and I certainly did.

Over in Haeundae near the forest of apartment blocks named Centum City, which sounds like a place which should be inhabited by 1950s comic-book superheroes rather than conspicuously affluent Koreans, blackened silhouettes stood at the water's edge fishing in the darkness. I don't know much about fishing but it seems to be quite a popular activity at night here. I've never seen anyone do this back home but the risk of getting mugged is probably too great. Maybe if I were a fish living along the coast of seafood-obsessed Busan I'd only come out at night - better to take my chances with the occasional fisherman than the fleet of ships trawling around during the daytime.

On to Songjeong Beach, where a circle of candles and a small gathering on the beach suggested an event of some sort transpiring. They could have been Korean Christians but we nevertheless risked our immortal souls to satisfy our curiosity. In fact it was a heart-shaped arrangement of candles along with someone who looked too young to be doing so proposing to his shocked girlfriend, as acquaintances circled with video cameras and mobile phones to capture the moment. After rounding off his proposal speech with some singing she said yes, at which point apparently short-range tactical fireworks were lit and the whole event threatened to rapidly turn into some kind of First World War re-enactment. Suffice to say that it could have easily become the shortest engagement on record. I must remember to keep away from Koreans with explosive devices in future. The crowd recovered their composure and chanted 'get a room' and I chanted a four-letter expletive which was not intended as advice for the happy couple although with Busan's depopulation problem being what it is it probably wasn't a bad idea.

We finally finished up at Haewol Pavilion which is cultural property number whatever and is believed to date back to 1997, making it a pre-Naver period construction, but sadly we missed out on the nearby Dalmaji Eoul Madang (Moon Viewing Unity Forum), which is a pity as nothing brings people together like a good moon.

Korean tags: , 구경, , 바닷가, 황령산

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thus Spake Zarathustra

It seems that ever since the term 'Silicon Valley' came into popular use in 1971, politicians around the world have been trying to emulate this success story by designating an area within their own region for targeted growth and selecting increasingly silly names to invoke international enthusiasm or bemusement (winner: Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor). Not to be excluded, Korea's government has set a goal for the country to become the 'Northeast Asian Financial Hub' by 2015, a project run by 'fn HUB Korea', presumably so named because the origina bureaucrat was having serious problems with their keyboard at the time. Sadly, Seoul's desire to become the regional fn HUB is somewhat complicated by the geographical proximity of Tokyo to its right and Shanghai to its left, or East and West if we're trying to keep politics out of it, and the tide of history that is China becoming a global superpower.

A survey of 103 foreign companies ranked Korea as the least likely to become a fn HUB, causing the Chosun Ilbo newspaper to lament that the fn HUB dreams were 'all talk and no action' while extensively quoting from an Economist article which had, amongst other things they claimed, identified anti-foreign sentiment as an impediment to international investment and relocation within the country. Certainly, the government passing laws such as the one which prevents foreigners from opening bank accounts and using ATMs within three months of entering Korea doesn't help foster an economically conducive atmosphere, and some local attitudes can be forthright, but it's often the media itself which seems to contribute to the sentiment; a couple of links later the Ilbo runs an otherwise largely uncontroversial story about forbidding work permits to unqualified teachers when it suddenly feels the need to remind its readers that some teachers 'have even been found to have taught under the influence of drugs'. They do not comment on their position on writing under the influence of them though we may be able to guess. They ran this story last year although if you read it carefully you'll realise that the 'foreign English teachers' in question were ethnic Koreans who had been deported from the U.S.

The news goes on to make a passing reference to the fact that the new law will see the scrutinisation of education visa applicants' criminal and medical histories, and while the former might be considered reasonable enough, the implications of the latter might raise some eyebrows among those who consider their medical history to be their own, and not something for any government to pry into with a view to categorising and potentially discriminating against them in some way. Whether it represents the thin end of the wedge or not along the road to a Gattaca-style society is largely beside the point; the fn HUB dream of creating a global market requires more of a global perspective, and not an environment where foreign residents are afraid to read the news every day.

Korean tags: 정부, 정치, 경제, 신문, 외국인

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dangerous Ground

The first time I saw a person with a disability dragging himself along the ground in a crowded market place while people awkwardly stumbled around him I was shocked. I described what I witnessed but it was one of those times when I didn't reach for my camera out of a sense of respect. But when I encountered the many homeless people in Seoul I started to question my existence in Korea, and whether I was here just to take happy tourist photos to play along with my hosts, or whether I should try to reflect some of the realities here, no matter how uncomfortable or potentially irritating to the locals.

Someone once wrote that the older he got the more he had no more answers left, only questions. I have no answers to this either but I took the shot this time, because beyond the LGs and the Samsungs and the bright neon-lit cities there are other realities on the ground in Korea.

Korean tags: 사람, 가난하다, 빌다

Monday, October 22, 2007

Haunted Harbor

Last weekend we went to the Jagalchi Festival which seems to be one of those fairly low-key local events which tend to be a bit off the tourist trail. If there is some greater point to it I'm afraid it was lost on me, though on the whole it looked like it was just an excuse for local vendors to serve copious amounts of freshly-captured seafood and for some people to get up onto the stage to indulge in some good old fashioned Korean dancing and singing (or lip-syncing at least) whilst wearing extremely short mini-skirts, which might not be so remarkable here had they not been men.

Seoul has a bit of a reputation for being more liberal and bohemian (by Korean standards - it's all relative), and they tend view the far South and the province which Busan is in as being quite conservative, a place where men are real men, and the women can also be quite loud and frightening. Yet it's hard to reconcile that supposed conservatism with the enthusiasm with which the cross-dressing dancers are greeted, although it must be said that men in women's clothes are a regular sight on comedy shows, which is certainly thought provoking, although I fear the day my Korean language ability is sufficiently advanced to realise that most TV shows really are the 1970s pastiche they appear to be.

Down by the harbour was an exhibition of model ships, a man chopping traditional Korean sweets in time to music, karaoke for drunk ajeoshis (older men) which was about as bad as you can possibly imagine, and of course, lots of eating, and drinking of soju.

Korean tags: 음악, 축제

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Before coming to Korea, I never really associated this country with the idea of recycling - perhaps it was the simultaneous images of heavy industry and a rampant consumer society - not, one would think, a natural home for lots of environmental activists concerned about saving the planet.

In fact, not only does Korea have recycling laws, they are extensive, requiring each household to sort their rubbish in a variety of ways pre-disposal. But it's not so much the green lobby which drives the recycling culture, as the lack of land-fills. I always meant to write more about this, but actually there's an excellent blog post on it here.

Of all the different types of waste that need separating, in many ways it's the leftover food which is the most problematic, attracting flies in the heat and humidity of a Korean summer and generating the kind of combined smells that you would think impossible to be composed of anything edible. Let me tell you, things have been created in the bottom of the bin in our apartment which are probably in breach of the Geneva Convention.

So this being Korea, there is, almost inevitably, a high-tech solution to the organic waste problem. Behold the 음식물처리기/'food waste processor' (to approximately translate) - a innocuous looking electrically-powered box which discarded organic leftovers are placed into.

In itself, this would be nothing remarkable, but the clever bit is that within the space of a few hours the machine works its wonders leaving previously soggy food remnants completely dry and fairly odour-free, while the filter ensures that your apartment isn't filled with smell of the effort in-between. What smell does remain if anything can be pleasant in a potpourri sort of way, as opposed to the aroma associated with rotting. So what remains in the box can be placed with the rest of the dried leftovers without bothering anyone.

Of course, while it solves a certain waste problem it's probably not very green considering the amount of energy involved in processing let alone that involved in manufacturing the device in the first place, but then that's not really the point. This 190,000 won unit (about £101) solves the problem of decaying food smells and for some Koreans, that's a price worth paying. In fact, as some units are several times more expensive than this basic model, for some it must either be a problem worthy of considerable expenditure, or it's another example of high-tech consumer culture gone mad.

Korean tags: 쓰레기통, 음식, 쓰레기

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Street Trash

Many years ago the city councillors where I lived decided that the local economy would be magically invigorated by pedestrianising some of the central streets, replacing the utilitarian lighting with 19th century style street lamps complete with hanging baskets, and doubling local taxes. When I arrived in Busan, I quickly concluded that the urban regeneration trend was not one which had much troubled the minds of their counterparts here, and the only pedestrianised areas I found were the places which you physically can't drive a car or motorbike - and note that the pavement/sidewalks definitely fall outside this definition.

But recently someone in Busan Metropolitan Council evidently thought that it would be a great idea if the city's streets perhaps didn't look like a prototype for some future version of Grand Theft Auto, especially with all those overseas visitors, who don't know how to jump out of the way of oncoming motorbikes, flocking to the Pusan International Film Festival. So the area around one of the main cinemas in Nampodong where PIFF events were being held got a facelift this year, and the result is the Kwangbok Street Project featuring a curved road to discourage traffic, halogen style low-pollution lighting and water features.

From the way the Council have solicited messages of various kinds which appear on tiled blocks at one point along the street you might think that they consider this a project of some significance - perhaps representing an aspiration of how Busan might look in future. If so, one can only hope that eventually the city's planners discover that other urban innovation - the public litter bin - as there seems to be a complete lack of them - with consequences as seen in the photo below right.

In fact, in a country where there are quite a lot of street vendors of various kinds - especially those selling snack food, the absence of litter bins in Busan has always struck me as odd, but then I come from a country where there can often seem to be one every ten feet in shopping districts like this, which some might see as overkill. Still, it does help keep the streets clean. Perhaps it's a lost cause though - such is the nature of the enforced recycling system here what you do tend to find every few feet is a forlorn pile of cardboard packaging waste dumped in the street ready for collection, which passers-by then readily add a variety of other items to. If only there were some kind of high-tech public trash bin which did something clever with its rubbish they would probably be everywhere...

Korean tags: , 쓰레기통, 정부, 계획, 보행자

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Year of Living Dangerously

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading." - Laozi

Saturday marked the one year anniversary of my arrival in Korea. I originally intended to stay for three to six months before finally deciding to do a full year in order to experience this country's four seasons. We would have headed back home on Friday - if not before due to my father's illness - but the decision by the Entry Clearance Officer at the British Embassy to deny my wife a visa means that we're stuck here for the foreseeable future, and possibly forever. My temporary stay in Korea has thus turned into a fully-fledged government-enforced exile.

Some governments support capital punishment, but there's little doubt that innocent people are executed from time to time. What must it feel like to be killed by your own government when you know you are innocent, when there's nobody left to turn to because the government is the law and the law decides, on the balance of probabilities, that your life is in their hands and that it should be terminated? Well, the reality is that it's not a situation most of us will face, but this is not to say that we can live our lives without fear of our governments declaring war on us as individuals in one respect or another - and sometimes all it takes is one bureaucrat passing judgement on some perceived and possibly incorrect aspect of your personal circumstances or character and then the entire apparatus of the State is against you. So I came to Korea, got told by my government that I wasn't intending to return to the UK to live - if you can make any sense of that whatsoever, and was thus prevented from returning - unless I separate from my wife and return alone with no guarantee that she will be able to follow.

To say that this has cast a shadow over my Korean experience would be an understatement. I don't do depression but pervading senses of unhappiness flavoured with generous helpings of angst I have down to a fine art. I suppose it's one of the reasons Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite authors, and it's definitely one of the reasons I came to Korea - I needed change and I needed to find some sense of purpose which had ebbed away from me in the years before leaving. After a year here I can't say that I've found that purpose, but my experiences here have at least provided a distraction away from some of life's larger questions. The embassy's refusal to grant my wife a visa forced me to consider how I would feel about spending the rest of my life in Korea and I'm afraid to say that these have not been happy thoughts and as such, they have taken a toll on me personally. I could say that my year in Korea has not been a bad one and it would not be a lie, but that the prospect of being stuck here fills me with a sense of desperation may speak to a greater truth about my collective experience.

I'm a stock market trader and success relies on a large number of complex variables - we talk about 'being in the zone' without really understanding specifically what leads to this - but we know when we are. Since the Embassy decision my head hasn't been in the game and my performance has deteriorated almost as rapidly as my mood - I can point to specific instances of cause and effect as far as the link is concerned. The result is that I haven't made enough recently to justify the long and unsocial hours of doing it so I've decided to take a break from it.

A break is exactly what I need for another reason which has contributing to my growing frustration here, which are my language skills - or lack thereof. As of today, on testing my Korean vocabulary stands at 420 words and while I can sometimes make myself understood, and occasionally surprise people with an ability to relate something complex or abstract, the fact is that I have felt a growing sense of shame at my slow progress. I feel I have got a lot out of my time in Korea, but it would have been so much more had I taken the time to establish a foothold in the language when I arrived, instead of learning to read Korean very quickly and then failing to capitalise on that momentum as I got distracted by other things. If I could do it all over again that's certainly something I would change. Taking a break potentially frees up fifty hours a week for studying but even if I learn quickly I don't think I'll have the same sense of achievement that I would have had a year ago. There's also no guarantee that I'll make that commitment either - I was very motivated when I learned Japanese, but I've never had quite the same enthusiasm for Korean and I'm not sure I can magically discover it. I have a sense that I'm having to do this because of the Embassy decision, and anything I do because of that represents my tacit acceptance of the way they have manipulated the course of my life. But they have, and I have to adapt to it.

I mentioned Haruki Murakami. For me a constant underlying theme of his books are a sense of disconnection from society and normality. In this sense, my life in Korea could have been that of a character in one of his books. I have existed within Korean society without actually being a part of it - even with friends and family here - where the language barrier ensures that you often exist in a world of your own while life goes on around you. The fact is despite having a Korean wife it's too easy for all our conversations to be in English and almost all hers with friends to be in her own language. So I derive little benefit from it, and in reality it may be hugely detrimental to my language development - because basically I have little actual need to speak Korean.

On a happier note I really have had lots of great experiences such as baseball, welcoming in the New Year on a very cold beach at dawn, standing on the tops of mountains, Busan Aquarium, the outdoor PIFF cinema experience and Cheonggye Stream on a summer's evening. Most of all though, I've enjoyed - as much as my lack of language skills have allowed - trying to understand the subtler aspects of Korean culture; sometimes it's the small things which can teach you a lot about a country and its people, and can in turn cause you to question values indoctrinated into you by your own society;. it's a journey of intellectual discovery as much as a geographical one. This is a country of endless retail space - the economic viability of which I still don't understand, of 1,000 won per hour PC Bangs (another economic mystery), a relentless food culture, mostly great customer service, low-cost punctual subway systems, a relatively cheap and efficient healthcare system and limited government bureaucracy (at least in my experience).

On the other hand, I have new-found respect for the sensibility back home of not allowing people with loudspeakers to sit under your window at five-thirty in the morning selling salt, I long for the smell of fresh air untainted by diesel fumes, pollution from China, dead fish and sewer fumes, I fear the day I have to return to a Korean dentist or am forced to embark on another round of family obligations, I nervously check the news every day waiting for Korea to launch into another round of foreigner bashing, and I wait for the day to come when a taxi or bus driver finally kills us. Meanwhile the war on mosquitoes continues, I cringe at some of the animal cruelty and general political incorrectness shown on TV, I watch BMWs weave past limbless beggers dragging themselves on the floor through the streets, and my search for pizza as good as the ones I used to eat back home continues despite endless disappointments.

Korea will change - indeed it has changed even during my brief time here. The number of foreigners increases by the month as do the number of foreign cars on the previously Hyundai and Daewoo dominated streets. Globalisation is slowly eating into Korean society and I have little doubt that for Koreans it will be a particularly tough evolution. Some will not want that kind of change and our generally gracious hosts may not always remain so. Someone once wrote that sociologically Korea today is like Japan of the early 1980s. I can't speak to that but I do feel that there is still much to discover here that remains largely unmoved by the bulldozer of Western values. Ten or twenty years from now this may well be a blander place, full of foreigners and Koreans speaking English which negates the need to learn Korean or even really understand the local people on their own terms. But Korea is not yet that place, and while I know my progress in assimilating has been slow, it is for this reason that I do not regret the time I have spent here, and I only wish to get more out of it in the future.

The Good
- Busan Fireworks Festival
- Busan Aquarium
- New Year's sunrise on the beach
- Baseball
- Pusan Internation Film Festival
- Nampodong
- Haeundae
- trips to Seoul and Cheonggye Stream
- the KTX high-speed train
- the efficient and cheap subway system
- cheap and instant medical care
- cheap glasses
- autumn if it happens
- monsoon season (if it happens) - I like rain
- DVD Bangs
- PC Bangs
- Kartrider
- video game TV channels
- endless consumer shopping and laughably false advertising
- views from mountains
- Korea by night
- food vendors, food culture and cheap food
- Korean pizza - not quite as the Italians intended but different
- customer service
- relatively cheap bills
- no war on terror
- Korean immigration
- surprisingly simple Korean bureaucracy

The Not so Good
- loudspeakers at 5.30am
- getting called 'ajeossi'
- family obligations and three day funerals
- homeless in Busan and Seoul
- Haeundae (I have mixed feelings about this area)
- Gyeongju in winter
- Christmas, which basically isn't
- Yellow Dust
- summer
- dentists
- the smell
- bus drivers and airborne taxis
- North Korea
- "Corea Fighting!", this and this
- a certain social conservatism and what you see on TV
- Crazy Christians and other people constantly knocking on our door
- cockroaches
- fighting mosquitoes in my apartment
- televised animal fighting
- general street fighting at all hours of the day
- Microsoft Korea 2007™
- Internet connection speed, reliability and censorship
- safety culture, lack of
- Korean pizza - show me the sauce

The Slightly Bizarre
- love hotels
- the local red-light district
- night walking
- everything else

Finally, I'd like to say a big thank you to the British Embassy in Seoul, who made it all impossible - the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.

Korean tags: 요약, 기분, 직업, 대사관,

Friday, October 12, 2007


"Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny." - Edmund Burke

In my unceasing attempts to extract my own surplus value, I trade stocks and occasionally invest for the longer term. Last week's unexpected détente between South Korea's President Roh Moo-Hyun and North Korea's Kim Jong-Il raised the possibility that there may in fact be peace in our time after all, which in turns means that my previously mainly dormant North Korean investment otherwise known as Aminex might wake up from its slumbers. This only seemed to be further confirmed by the announcement that oil exploration had been one of the summit discussions. And there was me thinking that these meetings mainly degenerated into arguments about who sits where and which country makes the best kimchi.

When I saw another news story stream though my Dow Jones newswire it seemed like another piece of good news - the North Korean News Agency was reporting that the US was lifting sanctions against them (there is a bit of a reality distortion field up there though). Since the 'news' was nothing more than a headline I tried to go to the Agency's website to get some more detail, and was confronted with this:

And what this basically means is that you can't access the North Korean News Agency's website because South Korea is the kind of democracy where freedom of information is controlled by the government. Although to be fair, this seems to be something of a developing trend globally in some of the world's oldest democracies which should know better. But it wasn't so long ago that I was in the '10.16' Building on the PNU Campus which commemorates a failed student uprising against the military government 28 years ago. It seems that when freedom finally arrived nine years later it came with a large dose of realpolitik built in as far as the North was concerned.

Last time I had a problem accessing this website I was using LG Powercom as my ISP and simply couldn't load the page, but I couldn't load a lot of pages, so I wasn't certain whether it was by accident or design. Later the North Korean site became available while some other sites, including that other well-known hotbed of Marxist radicalism, Barclays Stockbrokers, got blocked, so I had to switch to Korea Telecom's MegaPass service. Evidently, this is the very obvious way they deal with information the National Police Agency and Korea Internet Safety Commission don't approve of. But it begs the question why one major ISP is trying to censor the site while another wasn't (unless it was a mistake - the site is now inaccessible again via Powercom). Whatever the case, surfing around the web and suddenly being confronted with a warning messages with the National Police Agency logo on them is the kind of more associated in the popular mindset with China than South Korea.

One of the concerns over the Irish Aminex is that the day may come when the relationship between North and South will become strong enough that in a burst of national pride both governments will conspire to ensure outsiders are kept out, and that in some way the company's contract will be declared null and void, despite being made under Swiss law. I think anyone who's spent time in Korea knows what the score is as far as social and economic protectionism is concerned, so I'm under no illusions over what may eventually transpire. On the other hand, the continued blocking of what the North Korean government have to say may tell us a lot about how deep rooted the mistrust between these countries are, and it cuts both ways because by some accounts defectors from the North are so indoctrinated and traumatised by their experiences that they have huge difficulties integrating into Southern society. There may be a very long way to go before the Koreans can truly call themselves one people again, if they ever can.

Korean tags: 북한, 범죄, 자유, 정보, 경찰

Thursday, October 11, 2007

High Note

It must be the season for wind instrument concerts; a week after the pan flute concert we were at a different venue to see an ocarina group performance, by probably Busan's only ocarina club.

The format was a mix of group and individual pieces and a guest spot by another group (our Panharmonic friends) - much as we experienced before. Another similarity was the lottery based on ticket numbers that was held at the end - with various types of the instrument in question being won. I suppose this potentially goes some way to attracting new members.

There were frequent changes of costume to match the theme of the pieces being played, a samulnori song complete with cries of '대한민국!' ('Republic of Korea!' - yes, that World Cup 2002 football chant that refuses to go away), and an ocarina-backed poetry reading which was different.

I don't know whether it was the high pitch of the ocarinas or the sound system in the theatre, but after we left it was a few minutes before I could hear properly again.

Korean tags: 음악, 출연

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


The remains of Typhoon Krosa are wending their way through our general vicinity, but it may have just been coincidence that a downpour began Sunday morning which continued almost unabated until the early hours of Tuesday. This is probably what the monsoon season would have looked like, if it had happened, which it really didn't this year - at least, not in Busan.

We had to drive to the PNU area of the city to a concert, but driving conditions were atrocious with standing water on many of the roads, which were choking with slow-moving traffic. We barely made it with time to spare. At the entrance to the venue was a plastic-bag/umbrella-cover dispenser which people would slip their umbrellas into as they walked through the doors to stop water dripping all over the carpets inside. Odd, but clever - it's a pity I didn't manage to get a photo of it.

What I did take photos and videos of was the site that greeted us a PNU Station when we were returning home afterwards. Unlike most stations on the subway network this is one of the rare ones above the surface, and the building itself is situated above a storm drain or channel which I've never seen carrying anything more than a very modest amount of water. Today the channel was transformed into a raging, and very noisy, torrent with water rushing around the building supports and down the adjacent pedestrian pathway. It certainly captivated the interest of the locals sufficiently for small crowds of people to gather on the bridge over the channel into the station to watch - despite the rain. Incredibly, as I was struggling with my camera's full memory card, a young couple walked along the pathway which is probably not six feet away from the deluge, and had overflowing water running down it, as though they hadn't a care in the world.

Our experience with the weather wasn't over however. When we got on the train it had great difficulty pulling away from the station, jerking forward to the sound of loud banging noises beneath us. The standard Busan Subway announcer's voice came over the tannoy to apologise for the rough ride - I didn't know whether the ride itself was more worrying or the fact that they had a pre-recorded announcement for it. As we staggered our way into another station two stops along, missing the train's assigned stopping point and aligning the doors with the platform barriers rather than the gaps between, the driver explained the rain was causing the train to slide on the rails. We were a few stops underground before things returned to normal.

Given the terrible state of the roads I thought there might have been some news coverage, but it appears that there wasn't, so I guess Busan just coped with what was thrown at it.

Korean tags: 날씨, , , 기차