Sleepless in Seoul

Serial Killer Politics

“I work for a Government I despise for ends I think criminal.”

John Maynard Keynes

On 20 January of this year, the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, there was a serious incident in Seoul at a housing complex in Yongsan. The area was due for redevelopment, some apartments and houses were to be completely torn down, and the government was evicting and relocating residents, many against their will. Negotiations in other areas had broken down and a group of residents in Yongsan – angry that the compensation they were being offered by the government was less than adequate – refused to yield and barricaded themselves inside a housing complex. On that morning, after a mere 25 hours of protest, police and SWAT teams raided the building before dawn, while the residents fought back with Molotov cocktails. It ended in tragedy: a fire erupted in the building, resulting in six casualties, a police officer among the dead.

Riot Police in central Seoul

Riot police in central Seoul (I took this photo about two weeks ago).

In the following weeks, huge demonstrations were held in the city, angry protesters and sympathisers gathered by the thousands, mourning the loss of lives and demanding that the chief of the Yongsan Police Station be held accountable for the tragedy. This was the man who on that January morning, had ordered what was widely perceived as a hasty and irresponsibly dangerous raid. He was hand picked by the Korean president Lee Myung Bak himself to be the next commissioner general of the National Police Agency. There is a lot more to be said about the details of the Yongsan incident, with evidence (video footage, police audio recordings, eye witness reports) suggesting police misconduct on various levels, from the unauthorised employment of third party contractors to do some of the dirty work on the police’s behalf, to the alleged burning of tires in the building which may have caused or intensified the fire which led to the deaths. Despite these alarming indications, an initial investigation by the prosecutor’s office cleared the police of any wrongdoing. Predictably, neither the public nor the opposition parties in parliament are buying this, and vehement calls for further investigations have been made.

This photo was taken yesterday in central Seoul.

Police awaiting demonstrators yesterday in central Seoul.

It is a sad fact that this incident is but the latest manifestation of a much deeper problem , one that is fundamentally unsettling and profoundly ugly. To put it bluntly, the tragedy at Yongsan and the ensuing revolt are prime examples of the consequences of abuse of executive power at the highest levels of office – a trauma which has plagued Korea since the military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee back in the 1970s and which haunts the national psyche to this day. When current Korean president Lee Myung Bak from the conservative Grand National Party was sworn into office less than a year ago, he was greeted by a public disappointed with the previous ten year liberal rule under which the nation had underperformed economically. Now, Lee’s approval ratings are  hovering at around 28%, at one point sinking as low as 17%, – numbers which cry the tears and screams of disillusionment and anger. But what else could you expect from a president who goes by the nickname “the Bulldozer”, who likes to govern from the top, passing laws and issuing executive orders in an authoritarian manner that may have been appropriate in the business world of Hyundai Construction (of which he was once CEO) but that does not resonate with today’s zeitgeist of democracy and civil liberty? From the unilateral decision to resume American beef imports in the hope of facilitating the proposed U.S.-Korean Free Trade Agreement, to controversial cabinet appointments and hand-picked placements in institutions of power which valued loyalty over merit (remember the police chief?); from indications of interfering with the press to cast himself and his policies in a more favourable light, to the authorisation of excessive police force which triggered official protests from Amnesty International – even at this juvenile stage of his presidency, with each passing day it is becoming clearer that Lee Myung Bak’s legacy won’t be pretty. Granted, his transgressions hardly reach the severity of former dictator Park Chung Hee’s crimes against humanity but the Yongsan incident serves as yet another reminder of the blood stained struggle for democratisation in this country. We have come a long way since, no doubt, but the all too familiar pattern is  horribly alive today: the government decides, the people protest, the government fights the people, the people protest even more – this vicious cycle has seen a sinister rebirth in modern Korea. Continue reading

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Good Hair Day

“Because I’m worth it”

L’Oréal

Yesterday morning, the postman rang the bell violently and tore me away from the realm of nonsensical fantasies rushing through the rapid eye movements of my slumber, the horrible sonic assault jolting my consciousness into awareness. To find this:

Good Hair Day

I did not expect this. But the cries of my soul have been answered. My deepest cosmetic needs are fulfilled. I can now go out of the house with confidence, my self-esteem and self-worth fully restored. Because I’m worth it – and you are, too! (Thx Luki!)

The Halls of Power

“I know […] that the way of human beings is not in their control, that mortals as they walk cannot direct their steps.”

– The Bible, Jeremiah 10, v. 23

A few days ago, I visited the National Assembly Building with my father. This is the place where all the high ranking politburo apparatchiks of Korea convene to pretend to pass laws while secretly scheming their power games. An old friend of my father’s happened to be the chairman of some very high parliament bureau of something very very important. As chance would have it, this influential and well-known politician – let’s call him Chairman Kim – was the first Korean politician to have his picture taken with Barack Obama – Senator Obama, that is – way back in 2004. For normal folks, it was apparently next to impossible to arrange a meeting with Chairman Kim. But not for my father, who had his cell phone number. As I said, they were old friends.

The reason we were here was not to talk about the weather and the beauty of the Swiss Alps (although we talked about that, too), but because another acquaintance of my father’s – let’s call him Professor Lee – was running for office and hoped to be elected to a newly created position within parliament that dealt with internal matters of expert ratification of special amendments to legislative procedures (or something in that vein).  He had  run a successful campaign and was one of the three remaining candidates still in consideration for the post. Chairman Kim and Professor Lee had never met, and my father had offered to introduce the two gentlemen to one other. Shake hands, exchange business cards, give the other guy a good stare, that kind of thing. Professor Lee was eager to meet Chairman Kim, who in turn had offered to put in a good word to the House Speaker for Professor Lee, in the hopes of improving  his chances for nomination to the post. That’s networking for you.

View from the National Assembly Building

Having nothing better to do, I accompanied my father and Professor Lee. Once we arrived at the National Assembly Building, we  located the main entrance for visiting folk and passed through security and metal detectors and after explaining the reason for our visit to the receptionist, received badges in exchange for our identity cards. Chairman Kim’s office was located on the fifth floor. The three of us took an elevator, which was guarded by men in suits with poker faces. They were so busy maintaining their stiff expressions that they didn’t even bother to check our badges. As we got out and made our way down the hallway, our foot  steps echoed sharply on the linoleum floor of the unusually broad corridor while we passed overstaffed offices manned by several gentlemen in suits and ties being officially official. Good thing I was dressed accordingly, had I shown up in my usual jeans and hooded jacket, these people would have probably excommunicated me from the premises. We reached our goal and were greeted by the secretary and shown to the waiting room. The waiting room also functioned as an office for Chairman Kim’s aides, four of which were  furiously working away in their whimsical cubicles while we sat on the sofas in the middle of the room. The coffee table was overflowing with broadsheets and hefty magazines dealing with current affairs and the air in the room smelt busy and overworked. Being the only guests, we waited a couple of minutes while everyone around us was most certainly not waiting for anything other than finishing time. And then the door to the Chairman’s office opened, and out walked four guys in dark suites who bid their formal goodbyes while the Chairman himself bowed first to them and then to us, beckoning us inside. My father introduced the Professor and me to him and we shook hands.

Chairman Kim’s office  – which he had to himself – was shockingly enormous, it was at least three times the size of the tiny antechamber that the four aides shared. Bookcases lined the walls, and about ten sets of bulging obese sofa chairs occupied the center of the room, separated by heavy muscular wooden tables with glass surfaces. Each piece of furniture probably weighed at least half a ton. Bright green wall-to-wall carpeting covered the floor. Chairman Kim’s sturdy desk was at the the far end, a shiny gold plated Korean flag post dutifully keeping watch over everything. The interior design of this room was tasteless and tacky, seething with bombast.  But this was the kind of office that all public officials in Korea were more or less entitled to once they had reached a certain rank, and although Chairman Kim likely had little say in how his room should be decorated, he had most certainly reached that rank. The ridiculous furniture served to remind you, lest you forget. Continue reading

Bonjour Tristesse

“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

Tom Clancy

The other day, I went out for a quick stroll downtown, a managable 30 minutes distance from where we live. Approaching the city center, the urban scenery had changed somewhat since I had last set foot there. New 30 storey towers and architecturally postmodern bus stops lined the landscape, and one of the main roads at the intersection where the statue of admiral Yi Sun Shin stands was having its original ten lanes cut down to six to accommodate a new park or something. The reason I was here in the first place was to retrieve two items that I had lost on my flight from Zürich to Helsinki (before flying from Helsinki to Seoul): 1) the first item was a novel I had been reading and had left in the plane before getting off  and 2) was hair gel that I had to give up as part of the security theater in Kloten airport.  So I went down to the Kyobo Book Centre to buy a new copy of Dance, Dance, Dance – of which I had maybe read about two thirds. The book deals with themes of loss and regret and adds a surreal touch to events as they unfold. In a very absurd way, it seemed to befit my current situation – as I find that everything that had happened to me in the past few weeks and is maybe about to happen is still not fully comprehensible in an almost unnatural manner. Talk about reality not making sense.

Night street

With item number one securely located and acquired in exchange for legal tender (btw, they changed the design of the money here, I don’t like the new design – not that it matters much, the old design sucked, too), I’m off to hunt down the second item. The reason I mention this at all is because hair gel is actually one of few (if any) cosmetic products that actually matter to me. Good hair gel makes me have good (or let’s say better than usual) hair and that makes me feel good. Simple as that. (There’s more to be said about this, of course, but I’ll spare you the grisly technicalities). My current favourite gel is L’Oréal Studio FX Indestructible/Invisible. There’s a reason I prefer this mass-produced off the shelf commodity product to more expensive, exotic alternatives, but for now let’s just say that it feels right. Plus it’s great value for money. And I actually viewed its ubiquity as a great advantage – you could get the stuff everywhere in Europe – so how hard could it be to find a tube somewhere in Seoul? I headed off to Lotte Department Store, located near the fashionable Myeongdong shopping area. This megalomaniac colossus is one of the largest department stores in Korea, you could comfortably fit the entire Freie Strasse in Basel into this building and there would probably be some space left. (That was most likely something of a slight exaggeration… but you get the idea.) I make my way to the grocery section downstairs, where they sell hygiene and basic cosmetic items (not the luxury stuff) and the selection of hair gels is ridiculous. I ask if they have L’Oréal hair gel, and the lady points me to the L’Oréal booth at the other end of the floor. “You mean the luxury corner upstairs where they sell the perfume and expensive eau de toilette?”, I ask. No, apparently there is a different cosmetics section in the connecting underground path between this Lotte department store and the neighbouring sister store (“The Young Plaza”) and I should look for the L’Oréal booth there.

So I make the trek to that section over there at the other end of the building. And indeed, I find a L’Oréal booth, and indeed, it looks promising. After a quick skim over the shelves I am unable to locate the sought-after item and I ask the lady there if they have the gel I am looking for. No, apparently not, is her answer. This came as something of a shock. Over 44’000 square meters of floor space and a parking lot for 1’800 cars (I checked their website) and its own separate L’Oréal corner and this buy-everything place couldn’t even offer the easy to get hair gel that meant so much to me. I wasn’t sure what was more pathetic – this store or me. The sales lady said I should try the specialty shops in Myeongdong or in Gangnam. A trip to Gangnam at the other end of town would take me at least 40 minutes with the subway and in my current tired state was out of the question. And I didn’t feel like going back to the hustle and bustle of Myeongdong. So I reluctantly bought a hair gel from the neighbouring Shiseido booth. Now, I wasn’t even aware that Shiseido even made hair gel, so I didn’t know what to expect. I made the trip back home (=waiting for the right bus, getting in, waiting, getting out, transferring, waiting, getting out, walking uphill), after having achieved only half of my goals for the day – paperback novel and wrong gel sitting uncomfortably in the bottom of my plastic shopping bag.

The next day, I took a shower, got a shave and tried out the strange new gel. I gave the white transparent tube a gentle squeeze and the clear substance fell neatly on my palm like a drop of liquid glass – just like the old stuff. So far, so good. I applied it carefully over my hair, shaping loose strands in the usual fashion. It wasn’t bad as far as gels go, I guess. But it didn’t feel the same. It was different. Like everything else around me. My surroundings had changed but I had stayed the same. Just as the gel and I didn’t make a perfect match, I didn’t well, gel with this place. What a way to start the day.

Sleepless in Seoul

“So leben wir und nehmen immer Abschied.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duineser Elegien

It has been, what, two or three days already since I arrived – and I can’t shake the indelible feeling that I am somehow, somewhat very, very out of place in this town. Whereas ‘town’  is probably not the appropriate word – the  icy skyscrapers of Seoul, the city of 12 million inhabitants where I was born one Sunday afternoon 27 years ago, loom large on the horizon. From where I am standing, the dark sprawling contours of the cityscape and the never ending sea of flashing neon exude a menacing chill. This is a place that I always enjoyed visiting but where I didn’t  necessarily want to stay for more than a few weeks – never have I felt this as poignantly as now. Jet-lag and general bewilderment have definitely contributed to such a condition – but the pain of parting, the uncertainty of one’s own immediate future and perceived lack of control have rendered former feelings of familiarity and belonging into something desolate and alien.

Seoul by night

Rewinding a couple of days back to my last moments in Europe, I realise that the giddiness and simultaneous multi-track hypertension of fast-forward farewells conspired to (at least partially) mask their gravity. My tongue, my lips, my larynx, they had uttered the words ‘good bye’  so many times in the past few weeks that taking leave was becoming something akin to a state of mind. Now that it was irrevocable and beyond doubt that I had arrived at my intended destination, the reality of separation from those dearest to me has hit with full force. I feel genuinely and profoundly blessed to have enjoyed the company of such wonderful human beings, and so sad that I must relinquish what has brought me great happiness and comfort over the years. But such is the fleeting nature of human relations, of life in general – and although it has been said many times over and over again to the point where such utterances have lost whatever meaning they had – to feel this again, once more, with such biting clarity and immediate realness, expels any doubt one might have had concerning the legitimacy and brutal truth of these words.

As I sit here wide awake, the clock tells me it is 5:00 a.m. and I am unsure if I am tired or… well, not tired. I open the vacuum sealed plastic bags which I had bought to save space in my luggage – put your clothes in there and press all the air out and you’ll be surprised how much you can cram into a suitcase – and it occurs to me that I am out of breath myself. This is no place to harbour a restless mind, much less a heavy heart, and the air-conditioned clinical urban vastness can be strangely consuming, sucking you dry just like one of those vacuum sealed plastic bags. I am sleepless in Seoul, and I guess I will be for some nights to come.