Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It's not propaganda - it's news!

'The Little Fellow', Jonathon Barnbrook, 2004

A friend passed on a link to Songun Blog a few days ago, and knowing full well that the title referred to North Korea's 'military first' policy, wondered what I was in for. As it featured obviously fake newsreels of Hitler visiting America and a documentary about a massacre carried out in France in 1944 (which was bookended by denunciations of the US, but edited out the fact the atrocity was committed by the Nazis!) it seemed rather humourous. Of course, it's hard to tell sometimes. Anyone who saw this would think it to be a parody of Japanese revisionist arguments, but instead would be shocked to find the writer actually espouses this point of view. So I remained unsure about Songun blog, at least until I saw this video, which is so obviously a ridiculous piss-take on those blaming the US (and Israel) for all of the world's ills ("stealing complete children for sale in Israel"; "guilty of crimes against cats"). Still, I imagine there are those on either side of the political divide who might not find it all that funny. A glance at Songun's blogroll would suggest that mocking North Korean rhetoric is no longer a sport for South Korean expats only - or that there are a lot of Kim Jong-il fans in the English-speaking blogosphere. Take your pick.

Still with rhetoric like "this week 'America' turned up its 300th million redneck warmonger mental retard capitalist aggressor", one is reminded of North Korea's way with words. It's a shame there's no such thing as NorthKorean hiphop, as the wordsmithery found in these statements, in English translation, could make them a breakout success in the global market. At the very least, if there can't be hiphop, Yi Paksa should at least do an album with lyrics taken from broadcasts denouncing the US (not that he would, I imagine, but hearing his voice take on such words would be a thing of awe - and as it could possibly draw on the youthful audience who made Fucking USA so popular, could prove to be rather successful, but only if released after some shocking crime by a US soldier in Korea or a loss to the US in a sporting event).

Of course, US-bashing is not all that Songun blog is about. It also has posted several official North Korean propaganda clips translated into English, which is indeed a service to us all. The introduction also reminds us that the DPRK (or its adherents, or its parodists) can also deliver complimentary compliments to contrast with their insulting insults:
The Dear Leader Comrade Generalissimo Kim Jong Il the brilliant statesman, political genius, prodigious humanist, prolific author, superlative scientist, remarkable film maker, and invincible military commander has been at the helm of the Juche revolutionary cause of the Korean people for a long time.
Arrrgh! "A long time?" Why did they have to end such sublime big-upping of KJI on such a dull note? Ah well. At any rate, there are three parts of the documentary "Always working together for the people" posted on the blog (part 1, part 2, part 3), though I doubt you'll really need to watch them all. And yet.... and yet you may feel compelled to. You see, the music is a cross between the synth-y mush heard in Japanese videos of gravura or AV idol photo shoots (something I can see Kim Jong-il being a big fan of - it wouldn't surprise me if he imagines himself being Che Gravura sometimes) and Christmas films from the 1940s or '50s like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. This warm, yet insipid, slightly bombastic music meshes nicely with the even, monotonous voice which describes the exploits of such a caring, nurturing, and kind leader as Kim Jong-il. I've always had an affinity for this kind of thing - I can think of numerous documentaries or somesuch programs on tv as a child that would, with this monotonous speaking, or a certain timbre of the voice, almost hypnotize me and leave me in a trance-like state. These documentaries embody this par excellence, and I can honestly say they are equivalent to the effect of sinking a bowl of makkeolli. You feel all warm and fuzzy inside - without the headache the next morning. I don't know if the effect is the same in Korean, but it shouldn't surprise anyone that this hypnotic style has been perfected by the North Koreans.

Also worth noting in this documentary is the fact that they never actually let the viewer hear what the great and dear leader are actually saying (for all we know, they're having a passionate argument over whether Akira Fubuki or Minori Aoi is the better AV actress). We don't hear the voices of the speakers or see the rapid editing and constant movement as seen in Leni Riefenstahl's groundbreaking Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (which John Ralston Saul has described as the origin (in form, not in content) of modern advertising), but instead see some longer takes and hear voiceovers -such as is found often in American television news.

To see an example of said American tv news in action, you need only look here. In the video clip found there, from October 16, you can hear this commentary:
In one corner of the globe tonight it is a full scale crisis. North Korea has now proven to the world it is now a nuclear nation. For its neighbours, those in close missile range, that is bad news, as it is for the US government, who worry that it will become at kind of nuclear arms dealership dealing with all the wrong people. Tonight US intelligence has picked up fresh evidence they might be planning another test, on the very same day when we were able to confirm that the first test was indeed the real thing.

Today, South Korea was taking the threat seriously. In Seoul, 40 miles from the border, regularly scheduled air-raid drills today, people running for underground shelters. While in the north, Kim Jong-il's second in command told a military rally they would be victorious over the united states.
I guess MSNBC was just hoping no one would put any thought into what 'regularly scheduled' means. How can South Korea be 'taking the threat seriously' by having an air-raid drill when it's a regularly scheduled one? Ah, but no matter, all you need to do is show rapid-fire shots of people running into subways in order to make it seem very, y'know, crisis-like. Follow that by North Korea saying it will defeat the US, and everybody is off to Walmart to buy duct tape.

Fox News was kind enough to also provide a video clip of their story about the civil defense drill here. I include it because, unlike NBC, you can take screen shots:

We are told, "This entire city of ten million shut down, there is no traffic on the streets, there are no people on the streets." Strange. By my place traffic continued as usual. Of course, this reporter is not exactly being truthful. There are several people in the streets, including himself and his cameraman. Look behind the man in yellow in the first picture, and you'll see some photographers with a tripod. It seems the media weren't required to seek shelter; they were too busy trying to scare the hell out of people living elsewhere in the world.

And people ask me why I don't watch TV.

These 'news' clips are basically telling Americans that it's a full scale CRISIS, NORTH KOREA WILL DEFEAT US, seoulites are RUNNING for the subways (which is utterly uncommon here) - first we confirm the FIRST TEST was the REAL THING, a genuine NUCLEAR BOMB, and now there are TWO BONGOS, A SCOOTER, AND A HALF DOZEN SOLDIERS near the TEST SITE - ANOTHER TEST could occur in OUR SLEEP! aaaAAAAEEEEIIIIIIEEEEEEAAAAAGHHHHHHH!!! Run! Run to the mall! Max out your credit cards!! (Brought to you by American Express)

Of course, when North Korea does this, its called propaganda.

Speaking of North Korea - hundreds of North Korean propaganda posters can be found here, and information about visual propaganda in North Korea can be found here. Best of all is the gallery of paintings from a book called 'The Peoples Great Leader', which should give some idea of Kim Il-Sung's god-like stature in North Korea. The religious iconography in these paintings is astounding - about the only thing missing is the 'miracle of the loaves and the fish'.

This iconography is not lost on British artist Jonathon Barnbrook:

Do 'spot the difference' in the following image - it is amusing:

In another piece that uses North Korean propaganda in order to critique it, Barnbrook juxtaposes images of children with the following text:
Why do dictators love children?
Because 'the past' is more real than 'the future'
And the past is much better than the present created by the dictator
And children have no memory of the past.
The rest of Barnbrook's work can be found here, while his two series on North Korea can be found here and here. I came upon his work at the Seoul Arts Center in 2004 when his exhibition "Tomorrow's Truths" was displayed there. He does not limit his criticism to North Korean propaganda, but also focuses on American and British corporate/ government propaganda. One of the more moving pieces about North Korea is the one below, which features photos of divided families being reunited, juxtaposed with text by Milan Kundera:

The power of dictatorship is the power over people's memory - the power to make people forget how the country was before the dictatorship began.

The power of hatred is the power over people's memory - the power to make people think only of the past and remember the harm caused by the other side.

The power over dictatorship is the power to remember - the power to remember how reality was before the dictatorship began.

The power over hatred is the power to forget - the power to forget the pain and harm caused by the other side and begin again in a spirit of reconciliation and love.

Seeing as both Koreas have been busy demonizing Japan and the US for quite some time, and the US has been busy demonizing North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria (oh, hell, the entire middle east), Canada, Venezuela, and an entire religion, I imagine such wisdom will hardly make a dent in any of the mental walls built by the propaganda found in these countries. But it's always worth a try.

Korea's Best Beer

Kudo's to the sunshine policy for bringing Taedonggang Beer to South Korea. Made in Pyongyang, North Korea, it's a lager that comes in a 500 ml bottle, and is certainly tastier than anything else made in Korea. North Korea could perhaps find a niche exporting this stuff. It's a shame the nuclear test will likely put a stop to the imports. Or then, maybe it won't, South Korea's stance being what it is these days.

"Excuse me sir, how do you feel about the nuclear test?"
"I hope it doesn't put a stop to the beer exports."

Oh, but the story of Taeddonggang in South Korea has a downside - it's only available at a really popular bar in Itaewon (across from a hotel and fast food joint) that plays shitty music and has a lousy atmosphere. Not only that, when we ordered some a few weeks ago, I and a friend got brown coloured bottles, while another friend got a green bottle. When a waitress saw this, she told us they only served green bottles, and that we'd obviously smuggled them in, and was set to call security. Which would make sense, if it wasn't the only place in the entire country where we knew where to find Taedonggang, and that the idea of smuggling beer into a place that sells a variety of drinks and has half a dozen beers on tap is patently ridiculous. Anyways, she was very apologetic about the whole thing when it was sorted out. But another source needs to be found. If anyone knows anything, do leave a comment.

By the way, this wikipedia entry provides some helpful links and information.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

12.12 and the passing of Choi Gyu-ha

Choi Gyu-ha honours his predecessor,
Park Chung-hee, Nov. 3, 1979

Chun Doo-hwan honours his predecessor,
Choi Gyu-ha, Oct. 23, 2006

As everyone is aware, I'm sure, former president Choi Gyu-ha died Sunday morning. I was well aware of the part he played (or, to put it bluntly, didn't play) in the period following Park Chung-hee's death, when he became acting president, and Chun Doo-hwan's inauguration. In between these two events, of course, were the 12.12 'incident' ("a coup in all but name," as US ambassador William Gleysteen termed it) and the Kwangju uprising. Among the tributes and photos of people lighting incense (such as Chun Doo-hwan himself), was information on his background as a career bureaucrat, as well as the fact that he refused to testify in court during the 1996 trial of Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. I've seen some criticism of him for "taking secrets to the grave", which I have to admit confuses me; other principal actors involved in the two main controversies, that of the 12.12 coup and Choi's resignation are still alive, namely Chun Doo-hwan - so why is Choi getting singled out? Perhaps for not standing up and speaking out at crucial moments, something that seemed to plague his presidency.

Both then US ambassador Gleysteen and USFK commander John A. Wickham have written about that time period (their books are listed here); Wickham's book may well be the most comprehensive source in English regarding the 12.12 coup.

Choi was appointed prime minister in 1975, and, upon Park Chung-hee's assassination by KCIA head Kim Jae-gyu on October 26, 1979, he became acting president. The night of Park's death, ROK army chief of staff Chung Sung-hwa had also been invited by Kim to dinner, and after the deed was done, Kim tried to convince Chung to come to KCIA headquarters. Chung instead convened a meeting at the army headquarters bunker where it was finally established that Kim Jae-gyu had been the shooter, leading to his arrest. It was there that Choi took on his responsibility as acting president. It was also there that he made the decision to appoint major general Chun Doo-hwan, commander of the Defense Security Command, to investigate Park's death. As Wickham described it,

Chun was ambitious and suspicious of Chung and his reasons for being present the night of the assassination (which still aren't clear today, though he was eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing). Unlike everyone else involved, Chung, as head of martial law command, could not easily be interviewed. Meanwhile, Choi was now acting president, and was trying to move towards political liberalization with difficulty. As Gleysteen described him,

And there were lots of challenges. For the first time in years, as restrictions began to lift, people could take part in the political realm. This led to Choi having to navigate a course between headstrong radicals who wanted democratic freedoms yesterday, opportunistic politicians vying for power, and groups in the military who feared losing their influence.

Meanwhile, Chun had found out his ambition had not gone unnoticed, and that he and a number of his friends would soon be demoted or transferred, which led him to use Capital Security Command troops, as well as Special Forces brigades, to seize Seoul and arrest Chung. The conspirators also moved elements of Roh Tae-woo's 9th division from the DMZ into Seoul, circumventing the chain of command and angering Wickham when he found out. At that point, however, what was happening was not clear to the Americans or to defense minister Rho Jae-hyun and ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff Kim Chung-hwan, who had made their way to a US bunker at Yongsan to confer with Wickham, who relates that

Rho and Kim, eventually get into phone contact with Chun Doo-hwan, whose demands left them with a sinking feeling:

Wickham suggested Rho and Kim stay at the US command bunker until dawn, which they agreed to at first, but were soon convinced by the vice-minister of defence that the minstry of defence headquarters, a short distance away, was safe. As soon as they arrived, Chun's troops attacked the building and took Rho to the Blue House, where he eventually agreed to approve (after the fact) Chun's arrest of Chung and remove several other generals from command. After this, Choi "formally acquiecsed as well".

Soldiers in front of Gwanghwamun after the 12.12 coup

After the 12.12 coup, as is well known, Chun continued to amass more and more power, leaving Choi in place as a figurehead. By the time Chun declared martial law on May 17 (after he'd had Choi appoint him head of the KCIA in April), Choi was essentially powerless. Kim Yang-woo, of the Kukje Shinmun, in The Kwangju Uprising, described Choi's television address to the people of Kwangju on May 24 (which was only broadcast in Kwangju). He called them "rioters" and urged them to surrender and to throw themselves on the mercy of the martial law authorities. Kim noted that
The broadcast lasted half an hour. During that time the president let his eyes rest on a manuscript in front of him and read the text. He lifted his head to face the camera only three or four times during the whole program.
Describing the scene six weeks later, Ambassador Gleysteen wrote that

The precise role Chun played in Choi stepping down is still unknown - another secret Choi "took to the grave". Chun, of course, stepped into the presidency two weeks later:

Choi Gyu-ha (left) at Chun Doo-hwan's (right)
inauguration as president, Sept 1, 1980 (from here)

From the descriptions of him, Choi sounds like he was picked by Park Chung-hee to be prime minister because he was meant to be a harmless figurehead. A bureaucrat most of his life, he was not prepared for the turmoil that would spread across Korea in the wake of the end of the Yushin system. The people who were prepared to grasp for power in that environment (from Chun to Kim Dae-jung), were all subsequently arrested for (or closely connected to) corruption or embezzlement. It seems that, according to those who observed him during his short presidency, that he was simply wasn't cut out for such a difficult position as he was then put in; he didn't have the power base or connections that others did. He doesn't seem to have been a politician, really. Which is perhaps to say that he wasn't really an asshole, like those who followed him.

Ironically, the date of his funeral will be the 27th anniversary of Park Chung-hee's assassination. From what I've read (though who knows how the media is shaping this), his years since the presidency haven't sounded like those of a man at peace. Hopefully he is now.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Newspaper Days

The Independent

Seoul, Korea, Tuesday, April 7th, 1896.

The Independent. A Journal of Korean Commerce, Politics, Literature, History and Art.
Issued every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.


The time seems to have come for the publication of a periodical in the interests of the Korean people. By the Korean people we do not mean merely the residents of Seoul and vicinity nor do we mean the more favored classes alone, but we include the whole people of every class and grade. To this end three things are necessary: first, that it shall be written in a character intelligible to the largest possible number; second, that it shall be put on the market at such a price that it shall be within the reach of the largest possible number; third, that it shall contain such matter as shall be for the best interests of the largest possible number.

To meet the first of these requirements it has been put in the native character called the En-mun, for the time is shortly coming, if it is not already here, when Koreans will cease to be ashamed of their native character, which for simplicity of construction and phonetic power compares favorably with the best alphabets in the world. Difficulty is experience by those not thoroughly acquainted with the En-mun from the fact that ordinarily there are no spaces between words. We therefore adopt the novel plan of introducing spaces, thus doing away with the main objection to its use. We make it bilateral because this will act as an incentive to English speaking Koreans to push their knowledge of English for its own sake. An English page may also commend the paper to the patronage of those who have no other means of gathering accurate information in regard to the events which are transpiring in Korea. It hardly needs to be said that we have access to the best sources of information in the capital and will be in constant communication with the provinces.

To meet the second requirement we have so arranged the size of the sheet as to be able to put it on the market at a price which will make it unnecessary for anyone to forego its advantages because of inability to buy.

To meet the third requirement is a more difficult matter. What Korea needs is a unifying influence. Now that the old order of things is passing away, society is in a state which might be described as intermediate between two forms of crystallization. The old combinations of forces have been broken up or are rapidly breaking up and they are seeking new affinities. The near future will probably decide the mode of rearrangement of social forces.

It is at this moment when Korean society is in a plastic state that we deem it opportune to put out this sheet as an expression at least of out desire to do what can be done in a journalistic way to give Koreans a reliable account of the events that are transpiring, to give reasons for things that often seem to them unreasonable, to bring the capital and the provinces into greater harmony through a mutual understanding of each other’s needs, especially the need that each has of the other.

Our platform is – Korea for the Koreans, clean policies, the cementing of foreign friendships, the gradual though steady development of Korean resources with Korean capital, as far as possible, under expert foreign tutelage, the speedy translation of foreign textbooks into Koreans that the youth may have access to the great things of history, science, art, and religion without having to acquire a foreign tongue, and LONG LIFE TO HIS MAJESTY, THE KING.


It has become evident that the disturbances in the country are not the result of disaffection toward the government, but are simply the excesses indulged in by lawless characters who take advantage of the present lack of strong central control, knowing that for the moment they will go unpunished. We could wish that they might take warning from the fate of similar attempts in the past and remember that sooner or later their sins will find them out. We decidedly refuse to believe that any large fraction of the country people are willing actors in these anarchical proceedings. The better informed Koreans in the Capital are of this opinion.
The Admiralty Court of Inquiry into the sinking of the Edgar pienace at Chemulpo found that the launch was overladen and badly managed.
We learn with regret that a case of insubordination in the police force was condoned rather than punished because the offender had been given his position by a powerful official. Such things tend to bring into discredit an otherwise effective force.
The promptness with which the governor of Haju was dismissed from his office when evidence of his malfeasance was forthcoming tends, insofar, to disprove the charge of inactivity which has been made against the present government.
At the Easter service in the Union Church, Hon J.M.B. Sill, U.S. Minister delivered an able address. The children rendered some Easter music very prettily. The altar was handsomely decorated with potted plants.



Edict. Alas, of late the minds of the people have been disturbed by the wrong ideas conveyed to them by the hands of bad characters calling themselves the “Righteous Army.” These unscrupulous men incite to trouble and keep the country in an uproar. This is due to Our being unable to rule them properly and we consequently feel ashamed. We have sent Royal messengers in all directions and have ordered the people to go back to their vocations in peace, but they do not seem to know what is right to do. We also sent the Royal troops to the disturbed district but we did not wish them to fight unless the people should resist the Royal Edict. The time has come for tilling the soil but the people have not yet returned to their duties and We fear that famine will follow. In that case We would not people to eat or sleep in peace for thinking of the suffering of Our people. We are told that some foreigners have been killed by these rebellious bands and that some of Our people have been killed by foreigners, all of which shocks and pains us. As We have opened up intercourse with the world, We consider that we are all brothers, whether foreign or native born. For brothers to hate and kill one another is an offence to Heaven and will bring its punishment. Our messengers tell us that the governors and magistrates have received Our orders to protect the people regardless of nativity.

Ye people, cast away all savage customs and become peaceful and obedient children. Cast aside the doubts and suspicions which you entertain against foreigners. The names of those killed, whether natives or foreigners, should be reported to us.

One example of Korea's modernization prior to annexation, one which I did not mention in this post, is that of the boom in newspapers that occurred in the late 1890s. What is reprinted above is the lion's share of the first page of the first issue of the Independent. Writing in 1897, Isabella Bird Bishop relates that
One of the most important events in Seoul was the establishment in April, 1896, by Dr. Jaisohn of the Independent, a two-page tri-weekly newspaper in English and the Korean script, enlarged early in 1897 to four pages, and published separately in each language. Only those who have formed some idea of the besotted ignorance of the Korean concerning current events in his own country, and of the creduility which makes him the victim of every rumor set afloat in the capital, can appreciate the significance of this step and its probable effect in enlightening the people, and in creating a public opinion which shall sit in judgement on regal and official misdeeds. It is already fulfilling an important function in unearthing abuses and dragging them into daylight, and is creating a desire for rational education and reasonable reform, and is becoming something of a terror to evildoers. Dr Jaisohn (So Chai Pil) is a Korean gentleman educated in America, and has the welfare of his country thoroughly at heart.

The sight of newsboys passing through the streets with bundles of a newspaper in En-mun under their arms, and of men reading them in their shops, is among the novelties of 1897. Besides the Independent, there are now in Seoul two weeklies in En-mun the Korean Christian Advocate, and the Christian News; and the Korean Independence Club publishes a monthly magazine, The Chosen, dealing with politics, science, and foreign news, which has 2000 subscribers. Seoul also has a paper, the Kanjo Shimbo, or Seoul News, in mixed Japanese and Korean script, published on alternate days, and their are newspapers in the Japanese language, both in Fusan and Chemulpo. All these, and the Korean Repository, are the growth of the last three years.
Philip Jaisohn (Seo Jae-pil) himself commented on his publication of the Independent in F.A. McKenzie's Korea's Fight For Freedom:
I started the first English newspaper, as well as the first Korean newspaper, both being known as The Independent. At first this was only published semi-weekly, but later on, every other day. The Korean edition of this paper was eagerly read by the people and the circulation increased by leaps and bounds. It was very encouraging to me and I believe it did exert considerable influence for good. It stopped the government officials from committing flagrant acts of corruption, and the people looked upon the paper as a source of appeal to their ruler. This little sheet was not only circulated in the capital and immediate vicinity, but went to the remote corners of the entire kingdom. A pathetic but interesting fact is that it was read by a subscriber, and when he had finished reading it, turned it over to his neighbours, and in this way each copy was read by at least 200 people. The reason for this was that most of the people were too poor to buy the paper, and it was also very hard to get it to the subscribers, owing to the lack of proper transportation facilities at that time.
Actually, the Independent wasn't the first Korean newpaper. According to Chong-Sik Lee's Syngman Rhee: The Prison Years of a Young Radical, Pak Yeong-hyo, who became Seo's mentor, initiated the printing of the first newspaper, the Hanseong Sunbo (Seoul tri-monthly) in October 1883. The coup attempt of December 1884, in which Pak was involved, doomed the paper (Percival Lowell's lengthy account of the coup can be found here). Publication resumed in January 1886 as the Hanseong Chubo (Seoul weekly), but ceased in July, 1888. Of course, this refers to the first Korean-run newspaper; as Andrei Lankov tells us, the Chosun Shinbo, a Japanese newpaper which occasionally published stories in classical Chinese or even Hangeul, began publication in Pusan in 1881.

It's probably worth mentioning that more about Seo Jae-pil can be found here, which reveals what happened after he took part in the 1884 coup mentioned above:
In the short-lived reformist government, Sǒ, despite his youth, became a deputy military minister. This automatically made him a dangerous state criminal after the government’s demise. He was lucky to escape to Japan. But his family, according to the traditional law, was held responsible for his actions. His parents, elder brother, and wife were ordered to commit suicide (nobility was normally saved the humiliation of public execution). His younger brother was killed and even his son, only two years old, was starved to death.
Perhaps one gets a better idea of why he wanted to reform, among many things, the justice system when he returned to the country in 1896. Worth noting also is that he began to deliver weekly lectures at the Paejae school in May 1896, where student Syngman Rhee was captivated by the ideas of political liberty that Seo espoused. The Independence Club, of which Rhee became a leader, would eventually become locked into a life or death struggle with the conservatives, one which became marked by sit-ins, large demonstrations, and attacks by government- supported thugs on stone-throwing demonstrators (doesn't sound familiar at all, does it?).

The impact of newspapers should not be underestimated. When Bishop spoke of the "gusts of popular feeling which pass for public opinion in a land where no such thing exists", she was referring to the lack of newspapers, a 'technology' every modern country possessed. Thus the importance of her observation that "The sight of newsboys passing through the streets with bundles of a newspaper in En-mun under their arms, and of men reading them in their shops, is among the novelties of 1897. " Mass communication creates the illusion of unity, the realm of public opinion a consensual hallucination which most living in 'modern' societies today have grown up with all their lives. For Koreans 110 years ago, however, this was rather revolutionary stuff, as it saw the beginning of a mediated landscape which helped create the perception of similarity between distant cities and played a large part in the construction of a national identity - or would have been if the king and conservatives hadn't seen fit to outlaw the Independence Club, which led to the demise of its newpaper. The Korea Daily News (in Korean and English) , published by Ernest Bethell between 1904 and 1909, picked up the slack, but collapsed after Bethell's death, which was no doubt helped along by an imprisonment brought on by a Japanese resident general who was tired of the paper's blatantly anti-Japanese stance. Of course, by then it didn't matter, as the Japanese had annexed the country and banned Korean newpapers, which would not be allowed to publish again until ten years later, in the wake of the Samil movement. The Japanese battle against The Korea Daily News, which included starting the Seoul Times (an English-language pro-Japanese propaganda paper) and imprisoning Bethell, made clear how important these newpapers were, and why the Japanese were seeking to cease their publication. This fits in comfortably with the other examples I brought up here of Japanese attempts to bring to an end Korea's early attempts at modernization, and substitute their own form of modernization which, at that time, was more to Japan's benefit that Korea's. Newpapers help create a public space shared by thousands, and this homogenization across long distances began the process by which a Korean national identity would form - which is why, of course, the Japanese sought to wipe them out. Later, in 1920, they would be revived but strictly contolled, until their demise at the height of World War II, when Korean national identity would again be sacrificed for the greater good of imperial Japan.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Springtime for Cheonggyecheon

'Spring', from the Korea Times

It appears the sculpture recently unveiled at the 'source' of Cheonggyecheon (no, I don't mean the Han River) has caused some consternation amongst Seoul's citizens. It is titled "Spring", and designed by pop artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, who, according to the Korea Times,
were chosen for the $4 million sculpture last year by the former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak with advice from the state-run Seoul Museum of Art. The artists were paid $600,000, and $3.4 million was spent on production, with the entire cost paid for by telecommunication conglomerate KT. The shiny spiral is made of more than 200 pieces of aluminum, but it can easily be mistaken for plastic.
Claes Oldenburg and Lee Myung-bak, from the Joongang Ilbo

The article goes on to quote the opinions of many passersby, most of whom see the sculpture as an eyesore. Oldenburg and van Bruggen defend the sculpture, but not for the first time; back in February, when the project was announced, they were interviewed and responded to questions about the 'unfair' selection process, in which there was no competition, and the couple were chosen by the mayor on the advice of experts. Interesting to see that this piece attracted protests before it was even installed:

Performance of "Naked King and his fellows."

I think that one of the problems with the way in which it is being viewed is that the people who were interviewed didn't see it at night. It's garish colours and towering form make perfect sense when seen once the flashing neon has come out, as this photo of Cheonggyecheon taken near Dongdaemun makes clear (notice the garish, constantly changing, lights on the right bank).

The Korea Times article continues:
But any discussion of the aesthetic merits of the work has come too late for Korea’s Association of Visual Artists, which is protesting the project. Park Sam-chol, an art critic and spokesman for the association, originally raised the group’s objections in January, saying ``The biggest reason for our protest is that the government did not give any chance to the local art community, as well as Seoul residents, to openly discuss and exchange ideas on the public art of Chonggyechon.''
Poor artists. Poor citizens. I guess, not having the chance to discuss or exchange ideas about Cheonggyecheon, they now, as they're attacked by the garish colours of an eyesore invading public space in a central area of Seoul, might have some idea of what it was like for the merchants who used to line Cheonggyecheon when they were driven out by construction thugs and riot police. Except that an eyesore and actual bruises, contusions, and loss of livelihood don't really compare, do they? And as I've mentioned before, those vendors who used to sell their wares on Cheonggyecheon were just the first to get 'relocated'; those in the Sewoon Sangga and in the Samil Apartments will soon see their stores redeveloped. And those redevelopments are only the beginning, as the map I made below shows (and those below are just the redevelopments I'm aware of):

From this article from February, which documented the protests of local artists opposed to the sculpture and the selection protests:
"It looks like the empty shell of a black snail, which has been thrown out after someone ate the meat," said art critic Park Sam-cheol. "It's an anti-ecological shape. A live snail would lie horizontally. The work is standing. Unless someone is trying to express an acrobatic snail, it hardly says anything about the renewal of ecology in Seoul, which the restored river is supposed to symbolize."
Anyone who thinks that Cheonggyecheon represents the renewal of ecology really needs to get their heads examined. It represents a pleasant re-development project which was supposed to make the mayor look like a fast, can-do politician of the Park Chung-hee mold (without the authoritarian trappings, of course), a project which was supposed to conjure up the image of caring about the environment and history while bulldozing actual culture properties as they were in such a hurry to get it done, a project which is in fact a centerpiece of a rather large downtown redevelopment plan, as the map above makes clear - one which will give free rein to construction companies (not for nothing was SNU professor of environmental studies Yang Yoon Jae (the originator of the idea of redeveloping Cheonggyecheon) arrested for accepting bribes from developers to raise height restrictions in the downtown area when he was deputy mayor).

"Spring"s marsh snail shape is a natural form, but due to its construction out of aluminum and garish colours, is not really natural at all. How different is that from Cheonggyecheon itself? A former natural stream now coated in concrete and neon, fed by water pumped in from the Han River, isn't very natural either. "Spring" is, in the end, a perfect match for Cheonggyecheon.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Maps and Diagrams


Ok, my bad; I said back in December that I would edit the description of the streetcar map below, but I never got around to it. Here's what I wrote at the time:
I think the better caption would be “A map of the tram system in the 1930s”. I know I wrote “from” the 1930s, but I have to admit, there’s no proof of that, and considering the layout of the map (It does look more modern than the ’30s, don’t you think?) it may have been made at a later time. I’ll amend the post to reflect that (which would mean changing the preposition “from” to “in”). It may well be from that time, but it’s just as likely that it’s not, and I should have worded it more carefully.
A commenter here also suggests other reasons why it's a new map. Anyways, the change has been made; sorry it took so long.

Update 2:
Here's a colonial era map in Hanja/Kanji:

[Original Post]

I just spent some time at home in Ontario, and managed to bring back a few books (and scan a lot of others, especially the Seoul City photo books on the history of Seoul, where this diagram came from):

This is a map of the Seoul streetcar system in the 1930s (though not necessarily from the 1930s; it's from Seoul Under Japanese Aggression (1910 - 1945)) - a shiny nickle for those who spot the mistake! Upon seeing this, not only did I note the similarities in the Seoul streetcar network and the subway network in that area today, I also was reminded, in the diagramatic way it is laid out, of some of the situationist collages below, (taken from The Situationist City):

Pyschogeographical Guide to Paris,
Guy Debord with Asger Jorn, 1956

The Naked City, Guy Debord with Asger Jorn, 1957

All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. - Ivan Chtcheglov
Some of the early situationist texts on urbanism can be found here:

Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography Guy-Ernest Debord
Formulary for a New Urbanism Ivan Chtcheglov
Theory of the Dérive Guy-Ernest Debord

One reason for mentioning these texts is to give an idea as to where Flying City, a Seoul-based urbanism research group, got some of its ideas (in fact, the photo on the introductory page linked to above is very influenced by the style of the 1959 book Memoires, by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn). Antti has linked to Flying City on several occasions, and one of their panoramic photographs graces the top of his blog. Upon glancing through The Situationist City, I was reminded of them; a description of some of their work and background can be found here.

Much like the early situationists, they are also artists, and have put together some interesting photo collages, films, and other works. Their panoramic photos of redeveloped areas can be found here, while an interesting photo collage set near cheonggyecheon can be found here. An interesting film of the Wangshimni new town development (during the demolition phase), can be found here, while models of city designs (looking to be influenced by situationist Constant's work) can be found here (I'm sure they could come up with a better design for the new city hall than this or this). Browsing though their website will turn up even more.

Speaking of Seoul's redevelopment, a friend who was studying the Wangshimni new town development here for several months this summer sent me a link to an essay titled The Nature of Seoul's Modern Urban Development During the 18th and 19th Centuries, by Yi Tae-jin. I haven't had a chance to read it all yet, but it looks rather interesting.

Also regarding redevelopment in Seoul, I've been looking at the history of Banghwa-dong, where I live in Seoul's west end. Here is a quick map I made using a google satellite map of the area (which is not a close-up map, unfortunately). The dates refer to the completion of the developments. A quick look at it should make clear that by, say, 2012, when the Banghwa new town is to be finished, most of Banghwa-dong will be completely unrecognizable compared to the way it looked back in 1990.

I'll post more on Banghwa-dong at some point, so I guess this is just the 'teaser' map.

Oh, and having had only a 28 kbps internet connection for the last week and a half (and an aversion to tv), I hadn't really been keeping up on the news, so the news about the nuclear test was just great to hear when I returned early yesterday morning. Hopefully, if a nuclear strike ever hits Seoul, it will vaporize the taxi driver with the rigged meter who drove me home. (I'm just joking. Obviously, I hope he dies a slow death from radiation poisoning).

On that note, it's time for another 2 or 3 hours of sleep. Bloody jet lag.