Snow for the New Year

Seoul in white

Seoul in white

Seoul gets a coating of snow ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday on Monday. (Photo courtesy of Yonhap News Agency.) Note the empty street. This is seriously the best time to be in Seoul, as the usual crowds have all gone off to the coutryside to be with family. Thus, hour long commutes are reduced to ten or fifteen minutes, trains are empty with lots of seating and no old ladies elbowing you out of the way. I could go on but I think you get the point.

Clash with squatters reflects violent divide

Grieving relatives

Grieving relatives

Weeping cop

Weeping cop

The first image comes from the liberal Hankyoreh, with the headline “Police prevent families of protest victims from identifying loved ones.” The second image is from the more conservative JoongAng, which reports, “Court keeps 5 in custody for fire that took 6 lives.”

The two papers have been reporting on the deadly fire that broke out in Seoul’s Yongsan Ward after a police commando unit raided a building being occupied by local residents protesting a redevelopment project in the area. The protesters, mostly small business operators in the area, say they had been swept aside by the developers — Samsung C&T and POSCO — with little in the way of compensation. Police, under a newly appointed National Police chief, blame the protesters for the tragedy, citing a storehouse of molatov cocktails and other flamable materials collected by the squatters.

Surely police knew of the weapons being stored by the protesters, which is why they went in with the SWAT team. A newly appointed police chief must also have been trying to display his mettle to the president. But such tactis as used by the unit that raided the building not only put the protestors and themselves at risk but also the other buildings and residents in the area. Wouldn’t a more professional approach have involved prolonged negotiations to get the squatters out peacefully?

The Hankyoreh suggests a growing relationship between developers and police, who can be depended upon to resolve situations involving intransgent residents standing in the way of the bull dozers. Considering, too, the reputation of heavy handedness around the current administration it’s not surprising the squatters felt they had no recourse but to arm themselves with molotov cocktails. They felt they were being brushed aside by forces far more powerful than themselves and indifferent to their lives.

Just as an afterthought in lieu of nothing particular, went to the Korean War memorial in Yongsan two weeks ago and couldn’t help but notice the cases that housed the latest in military hardware. Proudly displayed alongside bullets the size of my three-year-old son were the logos of many of the nation’s construction firms, including POSCO. Seemed a sort of dark testament to the more violent side of a nation’s progress.

Photo exhibit highlights Korea’s changes

A story in the JoongAng about an exhibit of photography from the 1940s. The photos look interesting, especially one from the Mapo disctrict that could be from the 18th century. Hard to imagine it now, looking around Seoul.

One sentence that did give me pause was this one: “For years, Koreans have tended to look to the future only and refrain from mulling over the past.” Ummm, really? Then what the hell was all that stuff about Dokdo, or WWII, or those damn Japanese. Or all the crap about distorted history here?

Seoul public schools will teach English in English

The JoongAng headline says it all. Still, not a bad idea considering how much time students sacrifice to learn English grammar in Korean, which doesn’t do much in the way of helping them actually use the language.

Government commando “fixers”

The Hankyoreh has an article on how the government has increasingly relied on its commando units to suppress civic dissent.

Per the article:

Park Rae-gun of the SARANGBANG Group for Human Rights said, “The fact that the police commando unit is being deployed to places like the sites of worker strikes itself shows the government’s way of thinking, viewing the demands of people like workers as ‘operations targets’ that must be brought under control.”

China edits Obama speech

An Associated Press story reports that while Obama’s speech was being aired live in China the broadcast suddenly went to anchors when the words “communism” and “dissent” popped up. In translations too certain incendiary sentences are deleted, which makes me wonder what kind of aspiring world power could be so terrified of a few harmless words.

The space between Obama’s words

Obama

Obama

Having slept through the inauguration I printed out a copy of Obama’s speech to read on the train home. Behind it I stapled a couple of commentaries, one by William Safire and the other by Bob Herbert, neither of which did much to shake the thought that the words before me seemed empty.

There’s a saying I once heard about classical Indian music. That the depth of the raga comes through the silence in between notes. That’s what makes the music profound. I kept thinking that while reading Obama’s message and for some reason my eyes kept drifting to the white spaces in between each word. Like there was nothing there connecting the loosely arranged blots of black ink on the page.

I spoke with my brother later that night, who ironically stayed up all night near his home in India to see the ceremony. He said he was moved by it. I told him my reaction and he said that maybe it was about time we had a president who “used words instead of action.” A president who actually knows what words mean. I agree. Words are powerful, but why did the president’s own words fail to move me?

Part of it was maybe just being here in Korea and so removed from the U.S. I’d spent the day reading about squatters killed in clashes with police, threats from North Korea and continuing economic woes.

Part of it was also the theatrics. It just didn’t seem sincere, even though I know it was for millions. To me it felt more like a sales pitch. I read his message to the Islamic world and I wondered how he would deal with U.S. relations with leaders in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, leaders protected by Washington and hated by their own people. What about Gaza. Could Obama’s words act as a salve to heal the wounds of a parent who has lost their child, or an orphaned child. I doubt it.

But the silence might. Because it’s in those empty spaces that potential exists, the potential for the change Obama has promised. Today the papers are full of reports on his first day in office. He’s getting down to work, beginning to undo 8 years of damage. Four years from now I’ll read that speech again and maybe then the words will carry weight, the spaces filled in with promises met.