The Marmot's Hole

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Category: Seoul Stories (page 1 of 8)

Namdaemun Is Going Chaebol

Plans, by the city, have been announced that Shinsegae Department Store, run by Lee Myung Hee (the youngest daughter of late founder of Samsung Group, Lee Byung-Chul) would renovate (upgrade?!) the Namdaemun traditional market into a global tourism spot within the next three years.  Shinsegae has the support of both Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Jung District Office in this attempt to increase the appeal of the market to foreign tourists (Chinese tourists) (cite), as state by a representative of the store:

We (Shinsegae) will support the project to revitalize Namdaenum into a global market so that Seoul can develop its tourism offerings downtown.

Shinsegae also cited the polling of IPSOS, a local marketing research agency (also located in Jung District Office but with headquarters in France), whose polling showed that tourists wanted to try “different Korean street food” (?) (cite), so Shinsegae will first create a street specifically devoted to Korean food, followed by the renovation of the 37-year-old fountain that stands between its department store and the Bank of Korea headquarters (2017), finally developing a tourism program that links Myeong-dong, the fountain and Namdaemun market.

The JoongAng Ilbo is wondering if this sort of projects are coming at the same time the government is thinking about renewing the duty-free licensing to various chaebol since this announcement for Namdaemun comes nine days before the government selection process.

Other areas in Seoul have undergone development by chaebol secondary brand names and franchises (Garosu Street in Gangnam-gu and the Co-ex Mall in Seocho-gu). Though there may not be a chaebol brand name on stores, many are actually secondary brands, for example, “Around the Corner”, on Garosu Street, is a part of LG Fashion and such stores as Zara, Diesel, etc., are franchised by the Lotte Group.

Those of us who have lived here for some time may note that the commercial development of Garosu Street is of little cultural consequence since the street was fairly barren ten-years back, however, using the Chaebol touch™ – which is often a pretty heavy-handed affair – will change Namdaemun into something that would be more familar to the Chinese tourist that have grown accustomed to K-drama franchisement, repleat with their product placement spots and carefully cultivated scenery. I guess an American might talk about this in terms of someone or something having gone “Hollywood” or having become a victim of one’s own myth and hyper-commercialization.

Might we expect a Venice in Seoul, sometime in the future?

Bitter, Sweet Seoul – A Movie

bittersweet seoulMuch thanks to Colin Marshall, who mentions this film Bitter, Sweet Seoul:

an hour-long film made by Park Chan-wook, his brother Park Chan-kyong (together they form the filmmaking unit known as PARKing CHANce), and 141 different contributors from all walks of life who submitted their own footage of Seoul . . .

The whole film is available – at the above link – for viewing.

And on the taxi front…

As you know, catching a cab at night can be a real pain in the ass. Not that there’s no taxis, mind you. It’s just that the drivers can be very selective in who they pick up. If you’re not going in the driver’s direction, or your fare just isn’t big enough, well, good luck.

Things may be changing, however.

To decrease the number of taxi drivers refusing passengers around the end of the year, the Seoul City and Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency have decided to work together to push forward regulations strengthening the crackdown on taxi drivers, and increasing the supply of alternative transportation.

On Dec. 16, the city announced that it was putting forth these regulations because taxi drivers are still refusing to take passengers late at night despite the continuing crackdown.
Starting from this month, the city will also without exception fine transportation company representatives for refusing passengers even if it’s a first time act. They will not give warnings for first offenses and will fine drivers 200,000 won without exception.

Sounds good, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Seoul City has also been busy trying to rid its taxi fleet of drivers with criminal records. In 2006, ex-cons were banned from becoming new drivers, and in 2012, a law was passed banning individuals who’ve served time for murder, robbery, rape, fleeing the scene of an accident, habitual theft, habitual drunk driving, molestation, sex crimes against minors or buying sex from driving a taxi for up to 20 years from the end of their sentence.

It’s also conducting regular criminal record checks on new and existing drivers, cancelling the taxi licenses of those with records. In 2013, the city cancelled the licenses of 64 drivers, and this year, they’ve cancelled the licenses of 23 drivers through November.

The city brought this up because the Hankyoreh ran a story on a 44-year-old Seoul taxi driver who just got sentenced to 10 months in jail for molesting a young woman in his cab in Mapo in July. What made this especially bad was it was the guy’s fourth sexual offense – he’d sexually assaulted a female student when he was 16, did two years in the can for sexual assault in his 20s, and in 2010 was booked again for molesting a passenger in his cab. He had been able to keep driving because his first two offenses happened prior to 2006 and the 2010 victim dropped her complaint after an out-of-court settlement was reached.

Taxi drivers are also victims of crimes, too, and not just by drunken off-duty American GIs. To make drivers feel safer, Seoul City has decided to install partitions around the driver’s seats of its taxis, beginning with cabs driven by women drivers. If the results are good and the drivers like them, the city plans to expand the program to all taxis.

Photo by john and carolina.

Seoul’s war on Uber intensifies

The Seoul City Council passed on Friday an ordinance that would offer rewards of up to KRW 1 million to people who report Uber taxis.

The ordinance will go into effect after a final screening on Dec. 30.

The city also pointed out five things that make Uber really, really bad, including difficulties involving insurance and driver identification as well as Uber’s pricing system, which differs from Seoul taxi fares which are determined by law. They also don’t like Uber’s terms of agreement – the app provider takes responsibility for next to nothing while charging a 20% commission. Or so says the city, anyway.

Nowhere did the city mention pressure from taxi drivers or domestic app developers, of course.

It goes without saying that Uber is uber-unhappy about this:

“We urge the Council to reject this ordinance on the grounds that it contradicts the city’s sharing economy policies, undermines the city’s efforts to attract foreign investors, discriminating against Uber while the City actively supports (and invests in) companies offering similar services,” said the California-based firm in a press release.

The city government is planning to introduce its own taxi haling services next year in a joint effort with Daum Kakao, the operator of mobile messenger Kakao Talk.
“I cannot see how this ordinance serves the interests of Seoul citizens. It leads us to question that the City’s officials are bowing to pressure from taxi associations which have declared war on competitors,” said Allen Penn, the head of Asia operations for Uber, expressing his disappoint against the city government.

To be fair to the city, Kakao’s app, scheduled for released in the first half of next year, isn’t completely like Uber, and it probably does comply with the Passenger Transport Service Act:

South Korea’s leading free messenger service operator Daum Kakao said Wednesday it will launch a taxi service app by the first half of next year as it initiates a new platform of connecting online and offline businesses.

Daum Kakao signed a memorandum of understanding with the Seoul Taxi Association and Korea Smart Card Co. for the service that would link customers with the closest cab through a mobile app. The taxi association has some 255 Seoul-based cab operators as members, and Korea Smart Card is the country’s top transportation payment system provider.

“Daum Kakao has established important grounds for the operation of Kakao Taxi, and we plan to expand cooperation with other taxi operators throughout the country in the future,” the company said in its release.

Despite warnings from the government, Uber went live in Seoul earlier this month. This appears to be Uber’s modus operandi:

When Uber got off the ground as a company, its business had an unusual problem. In many markets where it was operating, it was violating the letter of the law. And in essentially all markets where it was operating, it was violating the spirit of the law. That’s because the “spirit” of the prevailing taxi regulations was, almost everywhere, wrong and pernicious. Alongside regulations aimed at promoting public safety, almost every city and state is burdened with rules designed to protect the incomes of incumbent taxi license holders.

I’m with Peter Diamandis when he writes that Uber is a “dematerializing, demonetizing and democratizing” app that “uses technology to dramatically improve a broken system.” Unlike him, however, I’ll put my money on the law winning in Korea, especially when the law is backed by major industrial associations and big local tech firms.

Oh, and while on the subject of IT, would it be too much to ask to put GTA: San Andreas on the Korea iTunes store, for Christ’s sake?

Dongdaemun Design Plaza: the Mothership Has Landed

Zaha Hadid’s $450 million Dongdaemun Design Plaza has finally opened.

And yeah, not everyone’s happy with it.

People’s Commissar for Architecture Park Won-soon—who also doubles as Seoul’s mayor—had this to say about Seoul’s newest architectural landmark:

“When you look at the building and how it stands in its surroundings, which includes several high-rise structures such as the Doota building, the word that comes to mind is ‘unbalanced.’ You look at the building from a certain angle, how the sloped roof influences the skyline, and you have to say that is an ugly sight,’’ Park said at a meeting with senior journalists at city hall on Tuesday.

“Most of the job on DDP was already done by the time I became mayor. So was Gwanghwamun Square, described by many architects as the city’s worst architectural creation, and the new city hall,’’ he added.

“I did not think that redoing them would be the right approach as that would only create new problems. My focus is to find the right content to fill these spaces, allowing them to improve the lives of people with the experiences they provide and also provide an easier place for artists to display their work.’’

To be honest, I know where the mayor is coming from on this. I could talk all day about everything Park’s predecessor Oh Se-hoon did wrong, not just with Dongdaemun but also with the Floating Islands, Gwanghwamun Square, the new Seoul City Hall, the Hangang River Opera House fiasco and a lot of lesser known urban redevelopment projects. Park loathes monumental construction and redevelopment projects, which is a good thing more times than not, and he’s a whole lot better at utilizing existing spaces.

That said, “ugly” is very much a subjective thing. I went to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza every day since its opening save yesterday, and frankly, as a work of art, it’s absolutely stunning. But hey, don’t take my word for it—read what Mihn Hyun-jun, the man who designed the beautiful Seoul branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, had to say about it:

Mihn Hyun-jun, a professor at Hongik University’s School of Architecture and the person who designed the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, said that he believes the design plaza “is the best architecture designed by Hadid.”

“There are criticisms about the high cost,” said Mihn. “However, the outcome has perfect completeness, artistically speaking. It did cost a lot, but that’s the price we had to pay for Hadid’s design.

“It’s time for this country to have something new and fresh.”


And with all due respect to Mayor Park, and paraphrasing a commenter on my Facebook page, the only way you’d be able to get an architectural project to harmonize with its surroundings in Dongdaemun is by telling the architect to build it as ugly as possible.

Mihn also noted that in the case of Dongdaemun, “the form came first, then came the purpose.” Which can end in disaster—see the Floating Islands. Thankfully, Dongdaemun Design Plaza has opened with Seoul Fashion Week, an exhibit of national treasures from the Kansong Museum of Art and some other cool exhibitions; accordingly, it’s drawing in a ton of visitors, most of whom, from what I could tell, seemed sincerely impressed with what they were seeing… and there’s a lot to see.

Yours Truly has posted a ton of photos taken during the first few days of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza here.

Marmot’s Note: Sorry for my own personal lack of posting—been terribly busy and, frankly, a bit burned out. And thanks to all my cobloggers for posting some good stuff in the meantime.

Happy Birthday Dr. Fred Dustin: Jeju’s Renaissance Man

Think you have been here for a long time?  Except for a few years while at school, Dr. Fred Dustin has been in Korea since 1952!  He has literally done it all:  Military, English teaching, Mining, Copy Editing, Rainbow trout promoting, writing, voicing, poultry raising, agriculture, and, of course, The Kimnyoung Maze on Jeju Island.

Not only has Dr. Dustin done everything, he also knew everyone.  Have any of you ever heard of the Koryo Club?

Seoul was a city in transformation and it was filled with interesting people. One such person was Ferris Miller, who arrived in Korea prior to the Korean War and returned in 1953 to work for the Bank of Korea. It was he who founded the Koryo Club – a group of Koreans and foreigners with an interest in Korea and its culture.

The meetings were held in Miller’s home and members were supposed to deliver papers on “things Korea” but Dustin, who was the youngest member, does not remember any specific papers every being delivered – only the large number of beer bottles that had to be cleared away the next morning.

But there were exchanges of ideas as evidenced by the names of the members – names that are now well-known in Korea studies: Edward Wagner (founder of the Korea Institute at Harvard), Richard Rutt (a former Anglican bishop who wrote many books on Korean poetry and his life as a country priest), William E. Skillend (the first professor of Korean at the School of Oriental and African Studies), Greg Henderson (diplomat and author), Chung Bi-seok (novelist), Cho Byung-hwa (poet) and Choi Byung-woo (Korea Times managing editor and reporter who died at the age of 34 on Sept. 26, 1958, while covering the Chinese Communist bombing of Quemoy and Matsu Islands).

All of these men had an impact on Dustin’s life.

“I look back in awe and with great respect upon those friends, role models and early mentors,” he fondly recalls.

You can read more about Dr. Dustin here in (Korea Times, Jan. 10, 2014).  For those on Jeju Island – if you get a chance, stop by today and wish him a Happy 84th Birthday.

Well, at least Lady Bird liked Park Chung-hee

Joshua Treviño linked to a piece in the July 1973 issue of The Atlantic describing the final days of LBJ. Interestingly, former First Lady Lady Bird was apparently a big fan of late Korean President Park Chung-hee:

We were in a private dining room on the third floor of the LBJ Library. Across the hall was a replica of Johnson’s White House office. A three-foot electric pepper mill sat at the head of the table, and butler Wong scurried in with a plate of steak and sweet corn. Johnson seated himself ahead of his guests, a presidential practice carried into retirement, and began to eat. Aides arrived to whisper in his ear about incoming calls. He either shook his head or left the table for many minutes. Secret Service agents haunted the surrounding corridors, walkie-talkies in hand. Déjà vu was a decorative theme: on one wall of the dining room were the framed photographs of heads of state whom Johnson visited during his years in office. “Here’s my favorite,” said Lady Bird, pointing to a photo of South Korea’s President, General Chung Hee Park. “He was a real no-nonsense fellow.” (Lady Bird was more conservative than the public ever realized.) LBJ laughed. “I remember our trip to Seoul. My God, I’ve never seen so many people lining the streets. I asked Park, through an interpreter, what would he estimate the crowd to be? The interpreter jabbers a bit and tells me, ‘President Park, he say population of Seoul is one million. People on the streets is one million. That’s all the people we have. So solly.'”

She must have really liked that otchil box from Ewha.

LBJ’s visit to Korea in 1966 came at a time when the North Koreans were acting especially vicious:

“President Lyndon B. Johnson could not have chosen a worse time to visit Seoul. General Bonesteel had been in command only about two months. He spent most of that time trying to separate fact from fiction along the DMZ. In the meantime, deadly incidents and rumors of future incidents proliferated. President Johnson came to Korea on 31 October, trailed by a bustling entourage of more than 500 people. He met with President Park, U.S. Ambassador Winthrop G. Brown, General Bonesteel, and American troops at Camp Stanley — all in a frenzied forty-four hours. United Nations Command forces remained ready, but the DPRK made no move against Johnson.

“Instead, the North Koreans took action against Johnson’s men. In the predawn darkness on 2 November, while the American president slept near Seoul under heavy guard, a KPA squad tracked an eight-man patrol from Company A, 1-23 Infantry. The northerners, probably from the 17th Foot Reconnaissance Brigade, paralleled the oblivious American soldiers. Once the U.S. element reached a point about a kilometer south of the DMZ proper, the North Koreans estimated that the Americans had relaxed their vigilance. The Communist soldiers swung in ahead of the plodding American file, assumed hasty ambush positions, and engaged the Americans with hand grenades and submachine guns.

“The U.S. squad disintegrated under a hail of bullets and grenade fragments. Despite later wishful stories of heroics, six Americans and a KATUSA went down almost instantly. A seventh American survived by playing dead. For one day, Korea displaced Vietnam from the front pages of American newspapers. Then Johnson left for home and interest waned.”

And so began the forgotten DMZ War of 1966–1969.

Notorious Korean gang lord captured in The Philippines

Remember Cho Yang-eun? He “founded the Yangeuni Family in 1978 and once made it the biggest gang” in Korea.  According to this Korea Times article (April 16, 2012):

The Yangeuni Family once had more than 10,000 members. Cho served his first prison sentence from 1980 to 1995 after being convicted of murder and social unrest. He was released in 1995 but jailed again the following year on charges of drug trafficking and attempted homicide.

After being released in 1998, he surprisingly entered a Catholic school saying he would become a priest. However, he was arrested again in 2001 for gambling and blackmail and received a 10-month prison sentence.

In 2008 he was given an 18-month sentence for assault with an ashtray:

According to the court, Cho hit a man identified as Hwang with an ashtray and punched him for allegedly bad-mouthing him at a bar in downtown Seoul in 2005. Hwang needed medical care for three weeks and Cho was arrested on the spot.

The court said, “an ashtray can be a lethal weapon in cases and it has been only three years since he came out of prison.”

He allegedly committed other crimes as well.

Police are investigating allegations that former gang leader Cho Yang-eun blackmailed a singer to compensate his acquaintance for loss from his stock investment.

Police said the notorious gangster, 60, intimidated the singer in August 2009, and threatened to chop the man’s leg off and bury it unless he paid back 1.7 billion won.

Perhaps Cho Yang-eun had learned this alleged art of intimidation from his rival, Kim Tae-chon and his dealings with Korean actor, Kwon Sang-woo.  According to the Chosun Ilbo (February 7, 2007):

According to prosecutors, Kim called Kwon in April last year, threatening the actor on the behalf of a Japanese associate who said Kwon had failed to keep his promise to hold an event to meet fans there even though he accepted an expensive watch as a reward. Kim allegedly rang the actor again the next day, threatening him with a personal visit to his home. Asked by Kwon what he was talking about, he threatened to expose everything he knew about Kwon in the media unless Kwon met him to discuss his Japanese friend’s demands, according to prosecutors.

But Kwon refused, saying they could talk on the phone. An irate Kim asked if that meant Kwon did not care if “tragic things” happened to him. Having had similar threatening calls before, Kwon recorded the conversation and handed it to prosecutors, who charged Kim with threatening behavior.

What is interesting is the final paragraphs of the article which clearly seems to indicate Cho:

Since 2000, crime syndicates have worked to give their activities a veneer of legality by establishing or investing in entertainment companies.

Prosecutors plans to investigate the cash flow of crime syndicates in case they cooperate with crime organizations in China and Japan that may aim to take advantages of the Korean Wave in Asia.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said it found that a member of a Yakuza gang masquerading as a pastor has taken an interest in the Korean entertainment business. “We have to keep them under constant surveillance and thoroughly investigate the victims,” prosecutors added.

Cho Yang-eun “publicly announced his “retirement” in 2009, but “remained the de-facto leader of the ring”.  Then in 2012, an arrest warrant was issued in regards to his alleged involvment in a financial scam involving a Korean bank and $US 2.5 million.  He quickly skipped the country and went into hiding somewhere overseas.

Now we know where – The Philippines.  He was arrested at 9 in the morning after leaving a casino!  And, get this, it may have been because his tourist visa had expired 19 months earlier.

What became of his rival, Kim Tae-chon?  Well, he died earlier this year.

Further Notes or related topics

A couple of years ago Mr. Marmot did a piece on various foreign gangs working with Korean gangs.

It is kind of strange that wikipedia does not mention these two gang leaders despite them being so notorious.


A Small & Different List for Seoul

miceKatie Chang has a small but engaging article in the T Magazine (NY Times) about one person’s pick of things in Seoul: Hometown Advantage | Jung Bae’s Seoul though I would pick other places than she did, it is at least a decent list to start with.  The artwork to the left is from “Around the Corner” a Garosu Street clothing and food boutique (owned by LG).

Sure, a nuke would be bad, but could it make Yongsan look any worse?

This video got posted alongside an article in OhMyNews on what would happen if Seoul’s Yongsan district got hit with a North Korea 15 kt nuke:

Mostly worth seeing for bad CGI of Seoul landmarks getting obliterated.

What the OhMyNews article didn’t ask was this—even if the North Koreans nuked Yongsan, would it make it look any worse than it does now?

The JoongAng Ilbo ran a piece on the national disgrace that is the Yongsan Dream Hub, which is now on the “brink of collapse.” The WSJ’s Korea Real Time has more.

Question is now, should they try to do something with the land, or just leave it empty as a monument to bad public policy?

Seoul Fortress Wall Walk and Other Walking Trails

Over at Circles and Squares, Emanuel Pastreich posts about Seoul’s new walking trails around the old city walls:

But now a new image for the northern bank of the Han River is emerging and becoming very powerful. The new vision focuses on the fortress wall that has survived in part around old Seoul The new posters, such as this one below, make the fortress wall a defining element for Seoul and go so far as to sketch in the parts that have been razed.

The city of Seoul has put together a very impressive walking tour based around the fortress wall for tourists (and residents). I am delighted as someone who has often walked around the city wall and found it quite beautiful.

As Dr. Pastreich notes, the trail was at least in part inspired by the Jeju Olle Trails, one of the best ideas to hit the Korean tourism scene since, well, ever. You can find municipalities and parks crafting similarly spirited walking trails throughout Korea now—see Yeongdeok’s Blue Road, Daegu’s modern history walks, and Jirisan and Bukhansan national parks’ Dulle trails. The Wonhyo pilgramage route looks like it has some real potential to it, too.

Photos of Insa-dong fire

Wikitree has some photos of last night’s big fire in Insa-dong.

Miraculously, nobody died, but seven were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

Also fortunate was that no major cultural landmarks were destroyed. The restaurant Yungmi—an old Jongno favorite—is no more, however.

Firefighters reportedly had difficulty accessing the fire due to the neighborhood’s narrow streets. Making matters worse, according to one report, is that the neighborhood had been slated for redevelopment, so local residents let their properties fall into poor repair. In June of last year, however, the city decided to preserve the neighborhood. Local improvement were to be entrusted to a private contractor, but no investors materialized. Local residents, thinking the place would be redeveloped one way or the other, didn’t see any reason to sink their own money into repairs.

Seoul takes out ad in NYT

Seoul City has taken out a big old ad in the New York Times to promote some Facebook campaign or something.

No, I had nothing to do with it. And no, they didn’t rip off my photo of Deoksugung, although I thought so at first.

Apparently, some folk aren’t happy by the ad’s copy, which says “Seoul is the capital of South Korea” rather than “Seoul is the capital of the Republic of Korea.”

Oh, and Lee Young-ae was in a NYT ad promoting bibimbap.

Park considering changes to Cheong Wa Dae

Is Cheong Wa Dae’s architectural environment unconducive to democratic governance? Quite a few folk seem to think so:

Modeled after a royal palace, the compound has a number of architectural problems. The main building, about 30 meters tall, is as high as a 10-story apartment building. But it has only two floors with very high ceilings.

The main office of the president is larger than 99 square meters, or 1,067.5 square feet. The distance from the door to the president’s desk is about 15 meters.

“This is a place that suits authoritarianism, not democracy,” Choi Jang-jip, honorary professor of Korea University, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Even if a leader is elected democratically, it is impossible for him or her to become a democratic president in this environment.”

I like the main hall of Cheong Wa Dae quite a bit—I love the way it harmonizes with Mt. Bugaksan, just as Gyeongbokgung does. That said, I probably don’t have to point out that the site was originally the residence of the Japanese Governor-General*, a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque office demolished in 1993 to make way for the new building. Anyway, between the Joseon kings, Japanese governor-generals, American military governors and Korea’s post-independence dictators, there’s not a lot of democratic tradition to that piece of real estate.

* The first Governor-General’s Residence was a lovely neo-Baroque mansion in Yongan built by Katayama Tōkuma, one of Japan’s greatest Meiji era architects. It was destroyed during the Korean War.

The Seoul mayor will be conducting a much more dramatic change in residence, moving from the current official residence—a colonial-era home in Hyehwa-dong—to a historic hanok home in Bukchon.

Mind you, both the current residence and the hanok were built for pro-Japanese Koreans during the colonial era—if you read Korean, check out Han Sang-ryong’s Wiki page. But there new residence looks so much nicer. The JoongAng Ilbo took a tour of the hanok—which is almost always off-limits to the general public—to check out its more unusual features, including a rare second floor.

Seoul Gov’t to make street signs more foreigner-friendly

Look for English-language street signs to begin changing, at least in Seoul:

The road sign for “Hangangdaegyo,” which literally means the “grand bridge on the Han river,” will be changed to “Hangangdaegyo (Bridge),” according to Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), Thursday.

This and other planned changes are intended to help foreign residents and tourists better understand road signs by translating the Korean words.

“We’ve had complaints that signs written in foreign languages are improper and confusing, and foreigners can’t understand them,” a city official said.

Personally, I’d just like to see the official English names to be rendered in a more logical way, like “Han River Bridge” and “Gyeongbok Palace.”

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