Monday, March 31, 2008

Vox Populi

"Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice." - Grey's Law

After I've finished my time in Korea, there'll be one aspect to my stay here which I'll always remember, but which was completely unexpected - namely, the way my Government tried to stop my wife and I from returning home to live there.

I've written what I could about this case as it has unfolded over the months, but now that it is over I'm able to reveal the details of it. There's too much to this story to do it justice in any summarised form, but I want to explain what has happened quickly and effectively, so I've taken the liberty of re-imagining my legal case as three conversations; it seems to be the best way of summarising it in a brief way. I'm told the result has a rather Kafka-esque feel to it, and if people see that in this then I truly have captured the essence of what we've been through. After the 'conversations', I've written a more conventional, and inevitably longer, explanation. But before we begin, the story so far...

Previously, on Busan Mike
A Summary

Pre Hearing
HMGovt: We're refusing your wife's spouse visa application.
Busan Mike: I don't understand. Why?
HMGovt: We don't believe you intend to return to live in the UK permanently.
Busan Mike: What do you mean by 'permanent'?
HMGovt: The Government has no standardised definition of the word 'permanent'.
Busan Mike: Then what does it mean in this case, exactly?
HMGovt: Whatever we want it to.
Busan Mike: Well, you can't make me promise to live in the UK for the rest of my life, that's an infringement of my civil liberties.
HMGovt: OK, bye.
Busan Mike: No, wait a minute, Britain's still my home.
HMGovt: Actually, we note that you're planning to sell your house.
Busan Mike: Yes - I want to move to a city centre apartment.
HMGovt: Well you haven't convinced us about that.
Busan Mike: So, are you calling me a liar?
HMGovt: Yes.
Busan Mike: Oh. Surely it's none of your business anyway?
HMGovt: Your entire private life is our business if we decide it is.
Busan Mike: But how can you decide what my intentions are?
HMGovt: We're the Government, we do that sort of thing all the time.
Busan Mike: You've absolutely no evidence to support your assertions.
HMGovt: We don't have to prove anything. As far as we're concerned, you're guilty until you can prove that you're not.
Busan Mike: Didn't that used to be the other way round?
HMGovt: Yes, but we're quietly moving over to the new system.
Busan Mike: But how can I prove something I haven't done yet, isn't that impossible?
HMGovt: Not our problem.
Busan Mike: Hmmm. Anyway, I'm still a British citizen.
HMGovt: And?
Busan Mike: Don't you have to let me live in my own country with my wife?
HMGovt: No.
Busan Mike: What about the European Convention on Human Rights?
HMGovt: [laughs]

At the Hearing
Govt Lawyer: This man admits he isn't going to promise to live in the UK permanently.
Busan Mike Lawyer: He doesn't have to make such a promise, it's against his Human Rights.
Govt Lawyer: That's irrelevant.
Judge: [laughs]

Post Hearing
Judge: The Government's decision is not in accordance with the law and the immigration rules.
Judge: You are of course, entitled to appeal.
Govt Lawyer: Er, no thanks.

The Longer Explanation

"The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." - Marcus Aurelius

The House

I've called this case 'my case', because more or less from the beginning, it was really all about me. My wife has no great desire to return to the UK, but I do need to return, and if she wasn't granted entry I would be the one living the rest of my life exiled to a foreign land, not her. But more than this, it transpired that my decision to sell my house before coming to Korea had probably set in motion this chain of events long before I'd even set foot in this country, let alone the British Embassy compound in Seoul. Yes, the big reveal is that, in the end, this case was all about a house.

My reasons for wanting to sell my house are numerous, personal and ultimately irrelevant to this case. Suffice it to say that I left my job and began suffering from Meniere's Disease in 2004, and these are two good reasons not to have a car, and a house in the suburbs with stairs to navigate on the bad days. So when I returned home from Korea, I intended to buy a city centre apartment. And that was still my plan, even though the agreed house sale fell through before leaving, which led to me ending up being stuck with it for reasons which in themselves are a long story.

The Policy Change

"Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism". - Mary McCarthy

Most people I've talked to in detail about what happened have been incredulous at what happened, and the reason put forward by the Government. So how could this happen? I can offer a possible explanation.

A number of immigration lawyers I have spoken to or heard from have said that during the latter part of last year they witnessed a sudden influx of cases where visa applicants had been rejected for reasons which the Government would never previously have tried to use. This seemed to be borne out by anecdotal accounts posted on Internet forums. A picture began to emerge which suggested there had been a policy change of some sort. My own research into the issue led me to the following conclusion: about a month before we arrived at the Embassy, someone in the British Home Office issued a directive to Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) telling them to make life harder for visa applicants. In short, someone in the Government initiated a tightening up, or 'get-tough' policy.

The good news is that as the months progressed, these previously trivial cases clogged up the appeals process, possibly annoying all those concerned with them. Eventually this led to someone in Government realising that the policy was counter-productive, and the situation returned to the status quo ante by some method.

Like many directives and policies within the corridors of power, the Government never admitted to a changing any 'policy', 'guideline', 'directive' or rule, and certainly will never now that it looks like it had unfortunate results. By their nature Governments tend to manipulate facts to suit them, and it would be easy to say that their denials in this matter are lies, but to be fair I honestly don't think it's as simple as that. I believe an effective policy change happened, but I'm not convinced the Government as a whole had any idea that it had, or if it did know, had no idea what the consequences of that policy was in reality. It's a rather depressing picture, and personally, I'd prefer to think that my case was an aberration, but the evidence of other cases does not bear this out.

Indeed, my Member of Parliament (MP), who also happens to be a Government Minister, supported my case and I am grateful for the help I had from his office, but I think it safe to say they were not happy when I put it to them my effective exile was the result of Government policy, and suggested this might be a line I would develop in the media, where I had some options to take my story public.

But as much as I can blame what's happened to myself and others in the last few months on the ignorance or incompetence of Government, at an individual level there were clearly people who knew they were doing the wrong thing, and breaking the rules. Were they powerless to prevent it? I think not, and they did not raise their voices in opposition to bad policy, but instead went along with its implementation, quite possibly in their need to chase internal targets for rejections.

The Balance of Probabilities or Possibilities?

There's a lot I could write about the outrageous decisions I've read about being applied to other people, but what it comes down to is this - ECOs are directed to make decisions on 'the balance of probabilities', and I have no doubt that what they started doing was making decisions on 'the balance of possibilities'. This of course is a huge difference, because what we all ended up with was a group of unelected and largely unaccountable people indulging in any kind of baseless speculation about applicants' personal circumstances on the grounds that 'anything is possible'.

In our case my wife's interview was hostile from the beginning, and despite the British Diplomatic Services Procedures stipulations on how interviews should be conducted - for example by not steering answers - this is exactly what our ECO did as far as I'm concerned - when she wasn't sighing as my wife was trying to answer questions. I say 'trying', because it's a bit difficult to give any kind of account of yourself when you are constantly being interrupted.

Along the way of course, my wife mentioned that I wanted to sell my house when I returned home, and while that statement seemed innocuous enough at the time, it later transpired that the ECO had seized on this as 'proof' that I wasn't intending to remain in the UK. I always thought this to be an intellectual leap of epic proportions - there was no evidence to support this at all - and fortunately so did the judge, though his opinion would take several more months to arrive on the scene. In the meantime, the ECOs judgement was law, and she was judge, jury and executioner to our fate.

But perhaps mindful of the tenuousness of the case, there was originally not just one but three dubious reasons put forward for the rejection, although the two below were never cited to us again after the original letter - but I raise them here for completeness.

The Wedding Dates

One of the most curious aspects to this entire affair - that of the date of my marriage, was also raised in our rejection decision - or maybe it wasn't. Confused? Well I certainly was.

Asked when our wedding was my wife replied in the interview that it was in January 2007. The ECO seized upon the marriage certificate and wanted to know why that said December 2006. Because that's when we signed the papers and became legally married in Korea - the actual wedding ceremony was in January though this has no legal status in this country.

You'd think that would have cleared up the issue, but apparently it didn't; the point about the inconsistent dates was later raised in the rejection decision, though it didn't elaborate further on exactly what point the ECO was trying to make, and seemed to be little more than an underhand attempt to cast doubt on the veracity of the rest of my wife's testimony.

But where this particular point takes an even more surreal turn, is that when we obtained a copy of the Interview Record (a tip to anyone else in such a dispute - you are entitled to it, always get a copy), it clearly showed the relevant documents had been seen, the question about dates asked, and the explanation of my wife given, surely to the satisfaction of the ECO. But the issue was detailed in the rejection decision as though no documents had been seen, and no answer had been given. It raises a lot of questions in my mind about what is entered into the official record, and how one person can enter contradictory statements and documents into it. I can look at a lot of what happened in our case, and see it as ignorance and incompetence run amok, but when it comes to the issue raised over marriage and wedding dates, I can't help seeing it as more than this.

It's also difficult to understand because an ECO in Korea should surely be aware of a basic fact of Korean marriage - namely that civil paperwork and wedding ceremonies are not normally done on the same day. Why was this raised, when it was - by any standard - a complete non-issue which only served to make the Embassy look foolish and vindictive?

The Visa

Somewhere amidst the chaos of the last few years, my then girlfriend's education visa expiry date went unnoticed. This was clearly a mistake, but when life seems to be going from one crisis to the next, and you have doctors mentioning the possibility that you could have a brain tumour, it does distract you away from other things. Precedent said this shouldn't be grounds for refusing a spousal visa, but it's no excuse, and if the Government had told us that my wife's visa had been rejected on this basis, I doubt I would have fought the decision.

They didn't and of course the issue wasn't even raised in the legal hearing, but I accept it may have provided further motivation to build a case around my house. I have wondered whether our application would have originally been rejected without this factor, but without knowing the specific details and motivations of what lay behind the policy shift last year, I can't know. My suspicion is, based on other cases which emerged in the latter half of last year, that we would still have been rejected because the Government evidently thought it had a reasonable case on the house alone, even if no-one else did.

The Ignored Appeal

There was an appeal, allegedly, to the ECO's manager, predictably entitled the Entry Clearance Manager (ECM). To this day, I'm not entirely clear on the process. Suffice it to say that I wrote a letter taking issue with the rejection decision and stipulating that I intended to return to reside in the UK, and that even though I was not regarded as 'present and settled' by virtue of having been out of the country for more than six months by this point in time, their own Diplomatic Service Procedures stipulated that if I made this assertion I should be treated as 'present and settled' in the UK for the purposes of visa applications. I thought that was pretty clear cut - but it was probably completely rejected. I say probably, because we never received a reply to our appeal from the ECM, and we only realised the initial appeal had been rejected when we received papers for an Asylums & Immigration Tribual (AIT) Hearing in the UK - a final appeal in front of a judge. Later, my MP's office phoned the ECM and confirmed that they had actually looked at our case.

Beyond this, to this day I have no idea what the ECM's justification for apparently ignoring pre-written Home Office rules and siding with their junior's decision was, but I think it quite telling. You see, one person can make a mistake, but when a superior endorses it, it suggests it is not error but policy. The Government wants to say that there was no change in policy but it simply doesn't square with what we experienced. When you have established rules governing ECO decisions which are available for anyone to read on a Government website, and not one person but two or more up the chain of command make decisions contrary to those rules, then it seems to me that someone has quietly changed the rules and not told the public. The alternative explanation is a lack of awareness of the rules, and tempting as it is, I simply don't believe they are that ignorant.

The Definition of 'Permanent'

The Government's lawyers later argued that my assertions were not strong enough and that I'd left open the possibility of returning to Korea. I had indeed questioned the whole meaning of what 'permanent' meant in relation to a requirement to promise I was intending to return to live in the UK on a permanent basis, because the British Government seemed to lack a definition but a dictionary would tell you that 'forever' would be a literal interpretation of this, which would clearly be unreasonable.

I never intended to enter into a semantic debate with them about it, but I'd questioned their definition in a letter to my MP, which I'd written after receiving the original visa rejection. Unfortunately it appeared that the letter was subsequently sent to the Embassy with a letter of support from my MP's office, which I hadn't foreseen happening, and everything in that letter became part of the official case. By the time I wrote the official appeal letter, my arguments were more honed and concentrated on the failures of fact and procedure which I felt the ECO had made. But that letter to the MP left me open to the semantic issues. That was unfortunate, and unbeknown to me over the months that followed, the Government were building part of their case around that.

The Lawyers

I had approached lawyers and was quoted figures of around £2,000 for submitting a visa appeal, so I wrote my own. It's easy to call it a mistake in retrospect, but it's a lot of money to spend when you think you have justice and the facts on your side.

Losing the appeal to the ECM was a bit of a shock, to say the least. After this, I certainly wasn't going to turn up at the AIT Hearing without legal support and I contacted respected London law firms specialising in immigration cases, along with local lawyers back home who were approved for immigration work. The only ones who replied to my emails were the London lawyers and I was quoted minimum figures (i.e. excluding 'disbursements') of between £3,000 and £8,000, and if we lost at the AIT Hearing and needed to appeal further, those costs could easily escalate well into five figures.

I agonised about these potential costs because they would have put me in a difficult financial position. In the end, I found a lawyer who's total costs were around £1,000, and while I found the process frustrating, she got the job done. The practice's web site has since disappeared, so in principle there's something to be said for employing the expensive lawyers, but maybe you get what you pay for and run the risks accordingly.

The Reason For Fighting

In fact, I have to admit now that given the potential costs in money, time and stress, I wasn't sure whether I could commit myself to the fight at all, but in the end I told myself I needed to, and that even if it were not for myself I should fight for principle and precedent so that others after me would not be treated in the same way.

In the small hours of the morning, when I was tired and ill, and could no longer research and write what I needed to for myself, I pushed myself on for those I perceived to be in a less fortunate position - people with stories like mine who didn't have my campaigning background and didn't have the money to get legal help.

I was somewhat shocked to discover that by living outside the UK for more than six months I was regarded as non-resident and that this designation meant my wife's case was judged weaker - in other words I'd become a second-class citizen. I was infuriated by the material inconsistencies in the original visa rejection judgement and the interview notes, both of which were written by the same person within a few hours of each other, and am still perplexed at how such contradictory statements were entered into the official record and seemingly not queried by the ECM before the case went in front of a judge.

I'm amazed at what I can only conclude to be the wilful disregard for the European Convention on Human Rights within the system in the UK - which seems to operate on the principle that human rights are not in fact universal but rather something to be applied to individual cases when directed to do so by the European Court. In fact, I'm not at all clear on what basis the British Government can effectively exile its citizens to non-European countries and claim that this does not breach their European Human Rights, when they clearly can not guarantee that said non-European countries operate legal systems which protect a British Citizen's Human Rights as enshrined within the EU. I can tell you that Korea does not - I have fewer rights here and not just because I'm a foreigner.

But my hope on making this a principled stand all began to go wrong, and as our legal case dragged on it morphed from a highly principled legal battle into a personal campaign that I decided had to be won at all costs because the Government's increasing intransigence had to be defeated at all costs. The details became personal and my father's deteriorating Alzheimer's, the health of my mother and my own issues with Meniere's began to become significant 'human rights' factors.

The result is that I can not cite my case as a clear cut precedent when it comes to the issue of proving an intention to 'permanently reside', because I fear the personal circumstances are too entangled as supporting evidence in the judgement, which in the end covered just about every angle of the affair imaginable, which in fairness I expect it had to do to deter further appeals by the Government.

The Conclusion

I say that we won this case, but when I look back at everything we went through, I'd have to say that really we lost. There's the cost in time, money, and emotional distress, and I've come out of this with a different view of my country than when I went into it. I'm fairly certain that nothing is going to bring that back. My Government made it fairly clear, despite a considerable history of being a significant net contributor to society, that it doesn't want me in it, nor my wife, and that knowledge - and the methods they employed to try and realise their goal, has left me deeply unhappy about the place I am supposed to call home, and I am no longer sure if I have a long term future in it. Perhaps then, this is not really the end of this story, but merely the end of the beginning.

But after all the stress, the financial costs, and the legal ruling that they acted 'contrary to law' or 'broke it' to put it plainly, at least the British Government apologised to me. Oh no, wait, they didn't. It tells you a lot about the society we live in that when a citizen is found guilty of acting 'contrary to law' they can expect a financial or custodial penalty, but when the Government is found guilty of acting 'contrary to law', it's the citizen that still bears the financial penalty, and the Government walks away unpunished.

"Results are what you expect - but consequences are what you really get." - Anon

Monday, March 24, 2008

Jennings & Rall

.-- . / .-- .. .-.. .-.. / .-. . - ..- .-. -.

I've long since resigned myself to the idea that any dealings I have with the British Embassy in Seoul operate on the principle that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. My experience suggests they are a somewhat dysfunctional organisation, but what is truly disheartening is that much of the dysfunction appears to be the consequence of design, rather than accident. Unfortunately though, it probably merely reflects the wider reality of British bureaucracy.

After winning our legal case against them at the end of January, the Embassy staff finally caught up with my wife three weeks ago via email, and bluntly explained that they had been trying to contact her by phone, but our number was unreachable. Indeed, we have moved, and we had sent an email informing them of this (since this is the only free way of contacting them given that phone calls cost $6 a time), but evidently they either failed to read it or failed to alter their records. So we called and they, or at least, their dysfunctionally outsourced representatives, VFS Global, got another $6 out of us in the end. The upshot of the phone call, seemingly with a non-Korean and non-British foreigner speaking bad Korean, was that my wife should go to the Embassy as soon as possible to get her UK entry visa.

We needed to get back to Busan and couldn't stay overnight in Seoul, so we spent about £90 (187,000 Won) to travel up there on the following Monday via the KTX high-speed train, three hours to Seoul, and three hours back. At the Embassy the guard let us through the gate, and while my wife's phone had to go in a locker, this time I got to keep my camera, which was odd. But not as odd as finding the Embassy deserted when we got in. It also happened to be a Monday morning when we infamously had our lives irrevocably changed by an Entry Clearance Officer, and I distinctly remember how the building was full of increasingly dehumanised visa applicants swimming against the tide of the bureaucratic process. This Monday morning there was no-one at all. In fact, the staff seemed rather surprised to see us, and apparently phoned 'The Gate' to try and ascertain on what basis we'd actually been let into the compound.

They took our paperwork and sent us away, which made me think that we could have submitted them by post and not dragged ourselves from one end of the country to the other just to slide some papers under a shock-proof glass partition to a Korean staff member. They told us they would post my wife's passport back to her once it was processed. So what does the Embassy do now that Jennings & Rall actually run the visa application operation as a blatantly commercial enterprise? Adding to the slight fall of Saigon feeling in the air the Ambassador's car zoomed out of the gates before we did, although we made our escape by foot rather than in a Jaguar. We passed the nearby Canadian Embassy on our way to a bank, where we withdrew some money and headed home.

Two days later my wife received her visa with her UK entry stamp, and I suppose we should at least appreciate that this final task was done quickly. Once again though, we had to pay for the postage on delivery, because despite the £500 application fee (i.e. tax), the British Government can't afford stamps.

So we are now returning to England. The country fought hard to keep me out, stripped me of my civil rights while putting my life on hold for six months, caused me considerable legal expenses and an incalculable amount of time and unhappiness, so it seems hard to call it 'home' under the circumstances.

I know that during the course of this fight against my Government a number of people have followed the story and posted advice and support along the way. I'd like to thank you all for your support and insights. I'd particularly like to thank those who emailed me privately with specific advice as I formulated my case. As you helped me I am in turn passing on the benefit of my experiences now behind the scenes to others in the hope that others can avoid what I have been through or fight any injustices done to them. I should have written this entry sooner to put the good news on record but I'm afraid that after everything we've gone through it feels like an empty victory, and one which has left me disillusioned and demotivated. Winning doesn't pay my legal bills and more to the point, it doesn't give me back the eight months of my life I've lived with, and worked on, this case.

Along the way there's been a fuller story to tell, the specific details of which I've not been at liberty to discuss while the legal process was ongoing. Now that my wife finally has that entry visa in her hands, I plan for one more post on the Embassy experience which I now need to write up, the end of season revelation if you will, and I hope that after this episode this is one series which never gets renewed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


South Korea is, of course, technically still at war with its northern neighbour, which at the very least, makes being exiled here by my Government on the grounds that I am free to enjoy my family life in Korea without this breaching breach of my human rights a somewhat interesting theoretical position. But aside from the vague and currently unlikely threat of a sudden nuclear attack from the North, the reality is that, at least as far as my own experience has been concerned, living in this country has probably been lot safer than living in the UK, given that large areas of my home city have the atmosphere of 1980s Beirut (car-jackings being a regular feature of the local news).

Still, actually having a definable external aggressor, and a nuclear-backed one at that, does add a certain tangible paranoia and, I suppose, requires the Government to take certain steps to ensure that if the end comes, we all die in the correct way. So there are civil defence drills eight times a year (every month except January, February, July and December), which involve sounding the air raid sirens, and scaring newly-arrived foreigners who don't know what's going on. Aside from the excitement of my first drill, I've missed most of the subsequent ones through being out of the area when they've happened, and it's taken me this long to realise that when there's a drill, flags with the '민방위' - 'Civil Defense' - logo (green, blue and yellow triangles which may be supposed to resemble mountains, psychedelic wigwams or party-hats, I'm not quite sure) are flown on the street. This means that on seeing these in future I no longer have to nervously wonder whether I should be sprinting in the direction of the nearest designated shelter, which is usually a subway which features the party-hats logo outside it, on the dubious grounds that it's better to be buried alive than blown apart.

My apartment block is besides one of the main roads through Busan, so when we had a drill on Friday I was able to watch as the drama unfolded - this is not merely a test of the air raid sirens. The first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that during the drill traffic is supposed to pull over to the side of the road, and generally does so, leaving them eerily quiet. In fact, since moving to our new place, I think it's the first time I've ever seen the road outside with no cars travelling along it, day or night. A man and woman wearing armbands - presumably Government workers, stood in the middle of the road, their purpose initially unclear. But when a taxi sped down the road it incurred the wrath of one of their whistles, though it seemed little else as the driver disappeared into the distance. Conversely, a couple of other cars were directed to pull over and did so. While ambulances lurked at the junctions, motorcyclists emerging from side-streets were warned off and proceeded to ride down the pavements/sidewalks, as is unfortunately perfectly normal in Korea even when faux nuclear attacks aren't immediately scheduled. Meanwhile, some pedestrians stood fixed to their spots, as I gather is technically the proper behaviour in such circumstances, while other people calmly walked along seemingly oblivious to the entire affair. All in all, it makes for something of a surreal sight.

Eventually the sirens were turned off and police cars, ambulances and fire trucks trundled up and down the streets. Occasionally an Civil Defense SUV rushed past, but otherwise, it was ten minutes of waiting around with nothing happening for all concerned. The city around us was deathly quiet, save for the occasional background noise and somewhat disturbingly, under the circumstances, the sound of children playing somewhere near us. Finally, whistles were blown up and down the road by the Government workers, the all clear sounded, and with seconds the streets were full of traffic, as though nothing had happened.

What this probably means is that when the real attack actually comes, people will sigh, stop where they are, and neglect to rush down the subway to the false safety of the underground shelters. But on the off-chance that Busan will not become a twenty-mile wide three-meter thick layer of melted steel and concrete, at least the roads will be clear for the fire trucks to move around extinguishing the post-blast fire-storm from their water tanks. I can also tell you the war will probably be Googled - for the first couple of minutes at least - because every time the sirens go off my blog gets hit with searches such as 'sirens busan', presumably from somewhat nervous non-Koreans.

Maybe in a country still technically at war, it's necessary to do these drills, and maybe it has as much to do about internal politics as disaster readiness - fear rather than rationale is much favoured by politicians of all persuasions, and not just in Korea. But as this country agonises about its need to attract more overseas visitors, I can only suggest that sounding what many foreigners interpret as nuclear attack warning sirens every few weeks perhaps doesn't necessarily do much for the tourist trade.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Bend It Like Beckham

I was sat in a Pizza restaurant yesterday when I noticed a familiar looking logo on the coat of a Korean guy sat nearby. Two red lozenge shapes with yellow writing arranged in a vaguely circular fashion - and while I couldn't make out the words perhaps if I looked in the centre to confirm my suspicions - yes there was the clinching evidence of a 'red devil' - Manchester United football club. Curiously, while the logo was unmistakably that of the British soccer club, the 'Red Devil' is also the name of the supporters' club of the Korean national football team.

I've seen a lot of Union Jacks here on clothing, bags, and twenty-foot high commercial signage, but a Manchester United logo was a first. Still, David Beckham was in the capital the other day to play a match against FC Seoul so perhaps it wasn't entirely surprising that there should be a link to his old team and some merchandise being sold.

A little later, another man, entirely unconnected from the first arose from his seat to reveal a rather large Union Flag on the front of his jacket, with the words "BRITISH CULTURE" emblazoned underneath, in case you were in any doubt at all. This attracted my attention for long enough to note a large cannon logo on the other side of the zip, and sure enough, as he passed by, the Arsenal Football Club logo fully resolved itself.

Coincidence or is there a sudden football fashion fad breaking out?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Haunted House

It was a bit of a shock the first time it happened. I was sitting at my desk when a man's voice echoed round the apartment. Nobody had entered and the TV was off. The disembodied voice was emerging from a previously unnoticed and nondescript grill by the entrance, and it transpired to be telling us not to use the water for a while because there was a problem with the plumbing, the mundaneness of which finally ruled out any kind of demonic possession.

These apartment block announcements from janitors have become a regular feature of life here, telling the captive audience of one problem or another. All well and good perhaps, but we seemed to cope well enough when we had an apartment without an internal public address system. I suppose this must be the slightly unnerving consequence of living in a really large apartment block.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Spies Like Us

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of Busan lies a small unregarded bridge near the apartment where we used to live. Perhaps the location's proximity to a large estuary, giving it - by local standards - something of a sense of isolation, has led to the placing of the following sign on the end of the bridge:

국가안보 나의행복 - "National Security My Happiness", reads the large lettering, followed by:

범죄신고 - to report crimes - call 112
간첩신고 - to report spies - call 113

North Korean spies are of course, easily recognised by their black attire and tendency to enter South Korea rectally by clambering up the bridge near Eulsukdo Island. Still, next time I see a CCTV camera on the street, I guess I'll know which number to call.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Fifth Season

I've decided that Korea doesn't have four seasons after all - it has five, because today has seen the first serious day of Yellow Dust Season. When I awoke this morning, I naively registered the murkiness outside as fog, but on closer inspection there's no mistaking its colouring, which is bathing our large-windowed apartment in a yellowish ambient light.

Last year, we only suffered the Yellow Dust for a few days, but I gather it was much more frequent in Seoul. It's said that in the 1980s, South Korea used to have around four days of yellow dust storms annually, but in recent years this has increased to twelve. With environmental problems in China and beyond only getting worse, perhaps it's inevitable that an increasing proportion of the year will succumb to these kind of conditions. I wonder where it ends?

The real problem with the dust is the pollution it picks up on its way over China - heavy metals and various toxins are carried on the particulate matter, and when deposited on the Korean Peninsula, can make for an unpleasant soup of material to be ingested by anyone venturing outside without a mask. But perhaps there is a little good news on this front - with an increasing chance that the global economy is heading for the kind of global depression not seen since the 1930s, one consequence of the unfolding economic collapse should be less industrial production in China and therefore less toxic pollution generally within the region. The price for the cleaner atmosphere will be so high though in other ways, maybe if the worst comes to pass people will miss days like these, and what they signified.

"The annual spring winds carry heavy doses of hazardous heavy metals such as silicon, iron, aluminum, lead, cadmium and cooper from the Gobi Desert in northern China and southern Mongolia. As China industrialized and deforestation took place over the past decade, the density of the Chinese yellow storms has become worse.

In the southeastern port city of Busan, it was difficult to see or breathe and the Busan Metropolitan City Office of Education issued directives to close all kindergartens, elementary schools and special schools for disabled children. The city office also had 373 kindergartens, 293 elementary schools and 12 special schools cancel entrance ceremonies."

Yonhap News

So why do people still leave their washing out?

Our Man in Havana

A few months ago I happened to be standing on my own taking some photographs in the vicinity of the Nurimaru building in Haeundae, where the APEC summit was held in 2005. Because I was distracted, I didn't realise an ajeossi was talking to me until he'd repeated his introduction a second time, and after my blank, if not suspicious look elicited a third attempt which I struggled to understand, he finally asked me 'Do you speak English?'

Perhaps it's more of a pertinent question than my ajeossi imagined, because after living here for almost 18 months, the strictly correct answer may well be 'actually, not much any more', and certainly never to strangers who approach me in public. Now that's not to say people don't register my presence when I'm on the streets, and I do get a number of 'hello's, 'how are you?'s and 'hey man's - the latter presumably on the incorrect assumption that I am American - I'm not and a young alcohol-fuelled Korean's best Californian 'hey man' is normally about as understandable as whale-song, and can sound about the same. There is also, it has to be said, a great deal of discrete, and sometimes not so discrete, pointing. I suppose this is what you get for living in areas where you can walk around for days without seeing another foreigner.

I apologised and explained that I wasn't used to people speaking English to me, and then the second surprise came - 'You are British?' - but it was more of a statement than a question, and he'd evidently picked it up from my accent rather than the tired look in my eyes and my vaguely ill-at-ease posture. So it transpires that he's had dinner with the British Ambassador, and he tells me how he really likes my country while I stand there grinding my teeth because it apparently doesn't like me very much. I wonder whether to play along or let rip with what I really think about my experiences with the British Embassy and my country in general, and what he can tell the Ambassador to do next time he sees him. But instead I find myself muttering a diplomatically gracious 'thank you', promising myself it will be the last time I play ambassador to my country, even though it's a role which in reality I have little choice in fulfilling here, one way or another.

My new friend then goes on to explain how he's the boss of an import/export company and he hands me his business card. No, unfortunately I don't recognise the name. Do I teach here? No, I'm a stock market trader. Who do I work for? Myself - and that seemed to catch him out, even though I gather that there are quite a few private Korean traders too. But he's really interested, and wants me to tell him more about trading, even though by now his wife has emerged from a loitering position and is doing what a lot of wives do in such situations, which is turn into a human clock. Unperturbed, he presses me into an explanation of some basic trading principles, before asking for my phone number and when he could call me to talk more.

Well, at the time I mistakenly thought I'd probably be leaving Korea one way or another within the month, and I was a little bored, so I threw caution to the wind, and gave him the number before his wife pulled him away. It was certainly one of the stranger public encounters I've had here. He never did call which didn't particularly surprise me, and I didn't think much more about it; I'm always extremely busy and getting into a commitment of this kind could be bad.

Still, if I were the sort of person that happily settled into a routine I probably wouldn't have uprooted myself and come to live in Korea - recently I got bored with my work again and remembered the meeting with the company boss while I was figuring out reasons for getting out of the apartment, which I've been spending too long stuck inside of late. Retrospectively, knowing a little more about Korean culture now, I wondered whether I was actually supposed to call him, since I suppose I am his junior. He had made a quite a bit of fuss about his contact number on the business card after all, when I reflected on it. I guess I'll never know though.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Main Street on the March!

One day you'll be walking down the street in Korea, and it will be the usual mix of noise, diesel fumes and advertising boards as far as the eye can see, and the next it will be the same, with the addition of Korean flags everywhere. Putting flags on almost every lamppost seems like a major logistical exercise, yet it seems to happen instantaneously whenever the occasion demands it. I can only imagine that men on the back of Bongo trucks drive up and down the streets at night quickly slotting flags into their slots while the driver barely slows down.

In addition to the flags on the streets, they are also hanging from houses, apartments, shops and they appear on buses - outside and inside.

The occasion - this time - is the anniversary of the March 1st Korean Movement, and involves a range of events in addition to the overnight speed-flagging of the country.