Korea road trip cont.

Driving south down the expressway towards Busan I ponder the rows and rows of apartment blocks that litter Korea’s skyline. Many of them look like government housing projects back home, and they’re everywhere, like sentries on duty. What are they protecting? The power  of South Korea’s ruling political and business elite, which have so thoroughly defined Korean society for decades that the two are now inseperable.

There’s no competition. A handful of conglomerates decided decades ago what kinds of homes were going to be built and went ahead building them. There were no alternatives, no firms vying for customers with better designs. In a short period of time Koreans found their living spaces defined by these companies and their corrupt heads. Society began to adapt to the new layout. Kindergardens sprang up in these new “communities,” convenience stores, barber shops. This is how most poeple in South Korea live now.

I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with living in these complexes. They are convenient in a lot of ways, and in a country with more people than space it makes sense to build up. The point I’m trying to make – in a round about sort of way- is the enormous might of this select group in shaping Korean society. It’s eerie, and it extends beyond architecture into the realm of media, fashion, entertainment and politics.

Honestly, I don’t know what the majority of people here think about this. Whether they are too busy or preoccupied to consider it. I suspect attitudes likely break down along economic lines, but even that may not be the case. Culture here is in many ways used as a commodity – marketed and sold to ensure that folks not only accept the framework, but support it wholeheartedly. “It’s my culture, and I’m gonna defend it.”

I love being in Korea. I’m thankful for what the country has given me in my time here and have a tremendous amount of respect for its people and history. But I wonder what that culture means when so much of it is defined by these elite circles in order to sustain their hold on power.

American journalists to be tried in NK

The two journalists detained by North Korea and being held in the country are going to be tried for illegal entry and “hostile acitivities,” according to Yonhap.

According to the North’s Korean Central News Agency:

The illegal entry of U.S. reporters into the DPRK and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements, according to the results of intermediary investigation conducted by a competent organ of the DPRK.

There’s a lot of speculation that the North will make a good will gesture by releasing the two women after they are found guilty to gain points with Washington. What the US does in response to the North’s upcoming launch in April will likely have a lot to do with the fate of the detained reporters.

As far as the moral highground here, in light of Guantanamo and the number of illegal immigrants jailed in the US under conditions perhaps only slightly less traumatizing than a North Korean labor camp, Washington doesnt have much of a leg to stand on.

Kim jong-il better skater than Kim Yu-na

Well, maybe not. But it does sound like somthing they’d say, and the personality cult that’s built around the two is eerily similar. They’re both lionized as “national treasures,” held up as icons of Korean honor and nobility.

Sure, I’m taking the comparison a little far. I mean, you’re not gonna be sent to the gulag for criticizing Kim – the skater I mean, not the short guy with the trademark pot belly. But it does remind me of just how much the two Korea’s share in common, despite the vast gulf that separates them.

Been reading a novel that came out a few years back – A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church (pseudonym), a fomer intelligence agent with years of experience in North Korea. His descriptions of journeys outside of Pyongyang remind me a little of my own trips outside Seoul. On both sides of the divide, there’s the capital and then there’s the rest of the country. Two completely different worlds.

It’s as if the two countries were mirror opposites of the other, or like two halves of the umyang that decorates the SK flag. One’s capitalist with a streak of Confucianism while the other’s Confucian with a nasty streak of communism. In one, children grow obese on fried chicken and Pizza Hut while in the other childrens’ growth is stunted by lack of food. One is supported by Washington, the other by Beijing. Neither is thrilled about the arrangement.

Whether because of these commonalities or in spite of them the two remain divided I’ve yet to figure out. Maybe they should just have it out on the rink and settle things once and for all.

NK holding SK worker

According to Yonhap, authorities in North Korea have detained a South Korean employee at the industrial complex of Kaesong. The individual who hasn’t been named is being held for allegedly criticising the North’s political system and trying to convince a female North Korean worker at the complex to defect from the country.

An accord dealing with legal issues surrounding the complex stipulates that South Koreans who breach North Korean law can be investigated, suspended from work or expelled from the complex depending in the severity of their violation. The most common of such occurrences seems to be drunk driving oddly enough.

Environmentalists behind Korea’s water shortage?

A piece in the JoongAng says water shortages in regions throughout the country don’t result from a lack of water but rather from the country’s poor storage facilities. Also cites resistence by environmental groups to the construction of dams as one cause for the lack of sufficient reservoirs.

Goh, a resident of Hwangji-dong in the city of Taebaek, Gangwon, said tap water is only available for three hours in the morning, and the family has been doing laundry just twice a week.

The rusty water might be tolerable for laundry, but the Gohs do not dare to drink it. And the limited supply of water in the morning means no water for the rest of the day; the family does not feel free to use the toilet at night.

I’ve visited friends – many of them monks who spend part of the year in remote rural areas – who say that during certain seasons their homes are unlivable due to the lack of water. It’s hard to fathom living in Seoul how dramatically different life can be outside the capital.

According to the corporation’s latest report, the country will be short of at least 800 million tons of waters by 2011, even if water resources are efficiently saved.

“Because of climate change, the severity of floods and droughts in Korea will worsen in the future,” said Professor Yi Jae-eung of Civil Systems Engineering at Ajou University. “It is imperative for us to build more dams, because that’s the surest way to secure water.”

“The current water shortage around the nation is the result of delaying dam construction for the past decade due to political debates,” Yi said.

On the border

Descriptive article in the LA Times about conditions around the North Korea-China border where the two American journalists were taken some weeks back. A couple of sections that I found particulalry interesting for their graphic descritpitions of the border area:

On their side of the border, North Korean soldiers stand watch, sheltered in concrete pillboxes spaced about half a mile apart. On the Chinese side, a military jeep runs every 20 minutes or so along the road parallel to the river. At some shallower stretches, there is a wire fence that was erected last year before the Beijing Olympics.

It looks like it would take little more than a pair of cheap wire cutters to get through. […]

Smugglers bring counterfeit currency and drugs out of North Korea, returning with foreign DVDs and radios. Missionaries flock here to console and convert newly arrived North Korean defectors. Human traffickers bring out young women to match up with lonely Chinese bachelors.

The final section on the author’s encounter with a North Korean border guard makes these boogeymen seem more like slightly naive bumpkins instead of the menacing shadows one imagines them to be. I suppose for defectors that is exactly what they are though.

Where the Hell is Matt?

Wow! Really inspiring. Just discovered this and glad I did. Check out the spot at the DMZ…

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more about “Where the Hell is Matt? (2008)“, posted with vodpod