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March 2016

 

 

South Korea

 

 

I hadn't written up our trip to South Korea (in March 2016) but Google Pictures gratuitously put an album together from my Cloud library so I was motivated to add a few words and put it up on my Website.  Normally I would use selected images to illustrate observations about a place visited.  This is the other way about, with a lot of images that I may not have otherwise chosen.  It requires you to go to the link below if you want to see pictures. You may find some of the images interesting and want to by-pass others quickly. Your choice. In addition to the album, Google generated a short movie in an 8mm style - complete with dust flecks. You can see this by clicking the last frame, at the bottom of the album.

A few days in Seoul were followed by travels around the country, helpfully illustrated in the album by Google generated maps: a picture is worth a thousand words; ending back in Seoul before spending a few days in China on the way home to OZ. 

 

The album starts with some sights around Seoul then the memorial to the Koran War, that loomed large during my childhood and I still find interesting.  That war influenced our economy and international relations and initiated our fear of Communism and thus the Democratic Labor Party.  As a student politics changed my life, and without it I probably would not have met Emily's mother. And without that story going exactly as it did, my children would not have been born. Wendy's son Heath and I had this speculative discussion as we roamed the museum.  His birth was equally contingent on this and previous wars.

Heath is the tall man in some of the images.  He was living in Seoul for some months for work and was the catalyst for our trip.

South Korea was interesting for many likenesses to Taiwan, that we visited a year earlier.  They are both 'Asian Tiger' economies and recent democracies, having been colonies of Japan and then under United States military protection since the 1950's.  But unlike Taiwan, Korea has a language and script that is unique.  It is also under greater daily threat from their evil twin across the DMZ than is Taiwan from China.  Like Germany, Vietnam and Palestine, Korea's opposed forces were partitioned during the 'Cold War' but in the Korean case there has never been a peace agreement and a state of war still exists. It was fascinating to go to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and look across to the tree-denuded hills on the other side, where poor North Korean peasants use the timber as a dwindling source of energy while, at the same time, their bellicose leaders threaten the world with nuclear war.  Almost as bizarre are the invasion tunnels that the North has dug under the DMZ hoping, like Greeks in the Trojan War, to invade in the dead of night and capture the South's defences and critical infrastructure or perhaps stage a coup.

The South has been living with this black comedy for so long that it seems relatively unconcerned as threat piles upon threat. The tour organisers explained that from time to time the threat gets so high that they can't go to the DMZ.  On this occasion they felt that despite the latest madness, in response to joint Naval exercises with the US, it should be OK.  It's a bit like the weather, they need to watch the daily forecast.

Unfortunately my DMZ hat that appears briefly in the album - only available onsite - is now lost.  It's somewhere in Berlin, probably in a toy or coffee shop. This is the only record of its existence.

Elsewhere in South Korea people were going about their business. Pulling things down and putting them up, farming their crops, milling about, driving hither and thither in this dynamic economy.  But despite 'Romance Hotels' and love & sex museums on the honeymoon island of Jeju, the otherwise puritanical Koreans are not very busy having babies. At less than 1.1 births per woman, South Korea now has the lowest fertility rate in the world. The population is just over 50 million but further growth is due entirely to aging, as people already here are living longer. 

For cultural and language reasons immigration to South Korea is negligible, mainly Chinese and American expatriates, so they had better think about a reconciliation with the North where fertility is higher if they want to avoid having the oldest population on earth.  Maybe the North's cunning plan is to wait them out?  Probably not, they prefer something faster, like building infiltration tunnels and nuclear weapons.

There have indeed been efforts at reconciliation including a shared manufacturing facility in the DMZ and a proposed train line to Europe, through the North to China and Russia and on to the West. Enthusiastic US support, with a Presidential visit to the project, was part of the Sunshine Policy of engagement but this was firmly rejected by the second Bush administration and the North got labelled a 'rogue state'. Since then, and particularly after the death of Kim Jong-Il in 2011 with power passing to Kim Jong-un, all these bets are off.  The trains rust to the tracks and the factories are silent. Instead propaganda blasts back and forth across no-man's-land.

Unlike Taiwan, the relationship with the ex-colonial power, Japan, is sometimes strained too.  Koreans have removed most of the painful colonial memories by demolishing and building over them, for example the sculptural but rather cold and inhuman Dong Daemun Design Plaza, built on a former Japanese sports field. The red building at the top of the album is an ex-colonial building and, as in Taiwan, the similarity to British colonial buildings is striking.

Yet it was to Japan that South Korea turned for technical expertise in the early days of the economic miracle.  In particular, the excellent Seoul Metro was developed with Japanese technical assistance.  It is now one of the world's most advanced, similar in length to the New York Subway (and Moscow Metro) but carrying 50% more passengers than New York (about the same patronage as Moscow).  It has less stations but it is in the midst of significant expansion.  It has more than once been sited as the world's best urban transit system.  We used it daily, made easier for us, as against say a French speaker, because, as in most systems around the world, the signs and station announcements are duplicated in English. 

A reassuring feature on many, if not all, stations is the gas mask closet, that looks like a vending machine, and the heavy blast doors held ominously open in the access tunnels, reminding us that Seoul is within artillery range of the North.  No need for rockets to take out this city.  Less reassuring is that there are two types of mask: one against smoke and nasty things like saran and another for radiation. But then you'd probably be killed in the fight to get to the masks as there are obviously insufficient, given the number of commuters.

The main confusion we suffered was getting out of the huge station complexes, that labyrinthically connect to Seoul's extensive underground shopping plazas and from which each exit delivers the commuter to an entirely different streetscape above, so that it's easy to emerge a kilometre from where you want to be and/or to go the wrong way once above ground.  Above ground there is very little English signage and not a lot of English speakers.

If you use your phone for navigation, away from WiFi, you'll pay an arm and a leg for global data download. So it's time to find a coffee shop and get some WiFi.

Catching a taxi, the universal solution to being lost, is no solution here, unless you have your hotel address in Korean, as addresses are entirely irrational and based on tradition.  Asking to go to the main station is an alternative of last resort.  But you could end up at the airport.  Isn't that where all tourists want to go?

As with the technology, much of the food is Japanese or Chinese inspired; except perhaps, the iconic Korean kimchi: fermented cabbage typically brewed with fish paste; ginger; garlic; and red pepper.  It has a very strong smell that pervades the country for the new-comer, like eucalyptus in Australia, but one soon gets used to it.  In general the food, as in China, is excellent, if a little more expensive.

One colonial memory particularly rankles: the sexploitation of Korean 'comfort women' to amuse Japanese soldiers.  Japan has repeatedly apologised and paid several rounds of financial compensation.  Now, following the last agreement and another payment, it wants Koreans to put the issue behind them and a memorial to these women to be removed from the street in Seoul.  But local protesters have camped-out to protect it.  They seem to have popular and possibly tacit official support. Korea is not going to forget easily.

Religion in South Korea is also interesting and it wouldn't be a travel report from me without mentioning it. 

Despite the obvious Buddhist influence and many temples it's predominantly Christian.  In the Seoul region Christianity is predominantly Protestant although Roman Catholics make up a third of the Christian believers in South Korea.  Korean Buddhism has almost all of the balance of theists - just over 20% of the population.  Both these great religions are growing and others are mostly shrinking. The percentage of those Koreans reporting no religion has also dropped (from 57% in the 1970's to 47% today). The Protestant/Catholic split seems to favour Protestants in regions where Buddhism is strongest.  Maybe they are more evangelical?  Nevertheless, according to Wikipedia, the Social Hostilities Index (that measures acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society) is very low and a fraction of that in the Asia-Pacific in general. It obviously disregards hostility from the mad mob to the North.

We were doing our own thing, more or less going to places recommended by the tourist guides but using local transport.  So we could see that not everyone is living in the lap of luxury.  Have a look at the men carrying goods on their backs for a pittance in the street photos.

So this is not an egalitarian country. Its three political parties are each, in their way, beholden to one or more of a handful of big family-controlled businesses or 'chaebol' and by big I mean very big. They dominate the South Korean economy and several have family members in politics. You will have heard of them. You see their products on our roads in our kitchens and entertainment areas and in people's hands everyday.  Samsung has now passed Apple (even in the US) as the largest supplier of mobile phones.  But that's just a fraction of the giant Samsung chaebol's business.  Similarly Hyundai and Kia cars and trucks are just a fraction of the business of the Hyundai chaebol and the next largest chaebol: LG (previously Lucky-Goldstar) also has a finger in many pies, beyond consumer electronics. Others in the top ten include the SK Group, energy, textiles and telecommunications, with close connections to a previous South Korean President. Influence is immediately obvious in the streets and in the shops.  Where are the Japanese cars, trucks or machinery?  Where are the foreign consumer goods?  The chaebols also own or control most of the international transport, wholesales, retailers and financial institutions. Other barriers to unwanted trade include the unique Korean language and script.

Elsewhere in the world this level of political influence, oligopoly and business collusion and hidden trade barriers would be illegal corrupt practice. Yet, like the United States and Japan, Korea is a democracy in which corrupt officials can be removed and have been.  For example, according to Wikipedia:

In 2015, Lee Wan-koo, the prime minister resigned following evidence that he had corruptly received money from Sung Wan-jong, a construction tycoon who committed suicide, leaving a note implicating the PM. The President was also damaged by the revelations.
[Also] in 2015 a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that "almost 70% of South Koreans distrust their government, while less than 30% of them are confident in the nation's judicial system." This rate is significantly lower than the OECD average, which was 41.8%.
The government has since taken steps to fight corruption, such as the Act on the Protection of Public Interest Whistle-Blowers.
"However, large chaebols pose significant difficulties as illicit business behaviour is still common among them. Their powerful role in South Korea's economy has made corruption investigation very difficult."
 

 

Yet most of the voting-age population is registered to vote and most do, indicating a high level of political awareness and motivation.  So South Korea is actually more 'democratic', in the sense of rule by the people, than the US or Japan, where only about half those of voting age actually vote, yet where big businesses and other interests also exert significant, although less obvious, political influence through electoral donations. 

No doubt things for the common person in South Korea are better than they were.  And had we visited in the 1980's I'm sure we would be amazed today by the changes and improvements in overall well-being, as reflected in life expectancy and material wealth.

On this trip we stopped off in China on the way home to Sydney.  It's another country where the rich are getting very rich, so that expensive European cars and Swiss watches abound, and the poor are getting a lot better off too.

 


2017 Addendum

The big news for American Independence Day, the 4th July (5th in OZ) is that North Korea has launched a rocket that travelled vertically to reach an altitude of 2,802km (1,731 miles). It flew for 39 minutes before hitting a target in the sea 933km away.  It is being styled an ICBM  (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) as its range is projected to be sufficient to reach: northern Australia; Alaska and western Canada, Pakistan and even Finland in addition of course to: China, Russia, Japan, India and other neighbours.  Yet I'm not so sure as the journalists that this is all.  I'm not a rocket scientist but I have a basic grasp of the physics and this rocket now seems capable of achieving Earth orbit.  In that event it could presumably place one or more nuclear warheads into orbit, thereby threatening any city on the planet.   Remember that it was the Russians putting Yuri Gagarin into orbit and returning him to land alive in 1961 that scared the pants off J F Kennedy and changed him from a space sceptic, during his election campaign, to an advocate overnight.  Suddenly Washington, and Hyannis Port, were within range of a Russian bomb. 

If accurately reported this launch could put North Korea into the same club as India, France, China, Russia, the US and the UK (ICBMs only).  A couple of other countries have a nuclear weapon (Pakistan and Israel) but no missile capable of reaching earth orbit. An unstable leader in any of these 'club members' poses a threat to every country on the planet.  But although this worried us a lot when I was a student in the 1960's, like Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, we've learned to 'stop worrying and love the bomb'. This is largely because of MAD - mutually assured destruction.  So, strangely, I find I'm not too worried.  Like the South Koreans, who live with these threats every day, I trust that Kim Jong-un's primary motivation is his own survival.  So I'm inclined to believe that this is what he says it is, a reaction to the imminent (or allegedly imminent) threat of attack by the US.  It's a tool primarily intended to shore up his domestic position as 'beloved leader' and also to give North Korea and entry badge to the international nuclear club and to stop the US threatening him with war games off his coast and with Presidential 'tweets'.

As I mentioned in 2016 (above) Kim Jong-un has always been able to attack Seoul, more or less at will, and has been able to 'nuke' Tokyo for several years now.  Yet he hasn't because of MAD.  On the other hand, the sanctions and the insults continue - despite all his bomb and rocket tests and bellicose posturing - so he keeps 'upping the ante'.   It might be a good idea not to push him to the point of actually declaring his hand by demonstrating his nuclear capability on Hiroshima or Nagasaki or on Washington DC. And to regularly reaffirm the consequences were he to do this.  Unfortunately it seems that to date President Trump has been the least predictable player in this particular game of poker.

Meanwhile in South Korea the corruption issues, alluded to above, came to a head last year and the country now has a new President, Moon Jae-in, elected earlier this year after the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.  Moon Jae-in is on the record, during his campaign at least, as wanting to renew reconciliation talks with the North and last month suspended plans to site US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) interceptor missiles in the South.  According to USA Today: "...the Pentagon rushed to put {these} in place before the impeachment of his more hawkish predecessor."  In a clear attempt to make them a fait accompli, the system was declared partially operational a week before Moon Jae-in was elected.  Four batteries remain in place but are now in limbo until exposed to a future environmental impact analysis, followed by a parliamentary debate.

Might rapprochement with the North be renewed?  Will the 'chaebol' reassert their manipulative hegemony over the Korean body politic?  And where is Michael Richard Pompeo, the new Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, in all this?

Only time will tell.

 


China - Guangzhou

 

I did indeed last visit Guangzhou in the 1980's.   I remember it as the city of pushbikes. I described it as an endless start at the Tour de France on steroids (prescient?). Bikes clogged the roads twenty abreast in what seemed to be an endless river. This time I saw very few and those were in local streets or chained up and rusting.  You'd be suicidal to cycle on the main roads any more.

The whole of Guangdong province has changed unrecognisably. In pollution hazy Guangzhou there are still parks and green spaces but wide roads cross the landscape, that is steadily filling with a forest of high-rise towers.  Tallest among these is the Canton Tower, briefly the tallest structure in the world.  That title is now held by the Burj Khalifa (Dubai), until someone builds a bigger one.

Despite the wide highways, the side roads are clogged with cars and trucks, like an aging smoker with peripheral cardiovascular disease. 

This congestion, combined with a concierge making a bit on the side, made our getting a pre-booked car to the airport on time very problematic.  Fortunately below, under the city, now runs one of the world's most modern and efficient Metros.  We jumped from the car with out bags and headed for the Metro. I even had time to run back to the hotel and grab my money from the shyster. Thanks to the metro, and despite connection to the airport line, we still made it in time to have time to spare at the airport.

We'd had a similar experience in Shenzhen a year earlier, jumping from a snarl-bound cab to take the Metro. As in Korea the Chinese Metros are easy to use. Station announcements and signage are duplicated in English although in Guangdong the announcements are in Cantonese; Mandarin and English.  

The Guangzhou Metro is dwarfed by those in Shanghai and Beijing but with nine lines and 167 stations it is already up there in the top twenty.  The first line only opened in 1997 and it's still growing, with plans to almost double it already under construction.  It's already longer than the Paris metro. It currently has fewer stations yet carries 60% more passengers than either Paris or London; all in air-conditioned comfort. 

What's air-conditioning London commuters ask?  Londoners would also drool at the cost.  Compared to a sweaty, crowded, low head space, Tube and London's many claustrophobic stations and tunnels, the cost of this relativity luxurious journey varies from CNY 2 to a maximum of  CNY 14 per complete journey. One Yuan (CNY) is presently about 20 Cents (Australian) or 12 P (British).  As in most systems worldwide, regular commuters have rf-proximity cards to enter and leave, that can be topped up, similar to the London Oyster or Sydney Opal card.  They can also elect to pay a flat monthly fee. Casual users pay for each trip at a  machine that dispenses a reusable round plastic token, also using rf-technology, that is put in a slot at the gate and is captured at the journey end.  Senior citizens (Chinese Nationals) travel free.

China's trains draw on technology from around the world (I met a guy on the Mosman ferry who was working on the software systems) and they are generally up with the world's best.  Shanghai for example had the first commercial maglev train in the world with a normal operation speed of 431 km/h. But at 30 km in length it's a demonstration service only (but still three times the length of later, technically improved, rivals in Japan and Korea). 

The Metro in Guangzhou is very similar to the Shenzhen Metro (see our return from our Taiwan visit last year), to which it's connected by high speed 'Bullet Trains'.  These go every 15 minutes and manage the 139 km in 1 h 19 min.  At a cost of A$16 this regular service enabled Wendy to go to Shenzhen and back, for a half day's shopping at her favourite bag shop.   

The four Chinese Metros we have used are similar to the earlier Seoul system and metro-style rail part of the Hong Kong MTR; that is an integrated mass transit system with surface light rail, similar to Seoul and Berlin.  The MTR opened in 1979, and goes to the Chinese Mainland border, from which you can walk to the Shenzhen Metro, after passing through the immigration controls. No doubt, one day, they will connect. 

Contrary to popular opinion, much of rural China is quite sparsely populated.  The overall density is just over half that of the UK, so if you've visited rural England or Scotland you get the picture.  But the cities are huge and getting bigger as rural China depopulates.  Guangzhou (once Canton) has already merged with Forshan and together with nearby Shenzhen and Hong Kong they form one of the largest conurbations in the world, with around 50 million people. It's over 1,500 km to the next mega-conurbation, that around Shanghai, and a further 1,330 km to Beijing, although there is a handful of smaller regional cities of around 10 million scattered about, that are also developing quickly. 

Several pictures in the album relate to the monument commemorating the struggles with the British.  Historically Canton's proximity to Hong Kong brought tensions with the British and produced some Chinese patriots skilled at fighting.  As a result Canton was a good place to ferment a revolution.  And so it was here that Sun Yat-sen, a local Guangdong boy of middle class means, who had been educated in Hawaii and Hong Kong as a doctor, like so many revolutionaries, set up to overthrow several thousand years of Empire. From an office on the site, now marked by the small obelisk you can see in the album, he plotted with others the overthrow of the Qing dynasty.  The throne had fallen into the hands of the Empress Dowager Cixi, a former courtesan who was ruling by virtue of her ward, the child Emperor Puyi.

In Sun's view, in addition to being corrupt, the Empire was holding China back by resisting change and new technology. He and his friends planned the creation of a new Chinese Republic.

Several initial attempts failed and Sun was exiled.  But he used the time to raise funds and support in the UK, the US, Japan and Europe for his cause. In 1911 he returned to coordinate increasing unrest and uprisings in China and was chosen by the revolutionaries as the Provisional President of the Republic of China. Among these revolutionaries were Communists enthused by the Russian Revolution and Nationalists, the Kuomintang.  Sun was a unifying force in the struggle against the old Empire but in 1925 he died.  Within two years the Communists and the Kuomintang split, like waring brothers, each claiming true decent from Sun Yat-sen, the 'father of the nation'.  Soon Sun was raised to cult status so that some even prayed to him. In August 1927 civil war broke out, interrupted when Japan invaded and the brothers joined forces to fight the common enemy. After the defeat of Japan in 1945 their civil war recommenced and in 1950 the Communists under Mao Zedong defeated the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, who fled with troops and supporters and the national treasure, to Formosa (Taiwan).  Thus both sides still honour and revere Sun Yat-sen (see our Taiwan visit).   In the album there are images of the memorial hall and museum and also of the monument on top of the nearby hill in Yuexiu Park, about 350 steps above the afore mentioned obelisk.  It was a very sweat-inducing climb on a hot muggy day. I was soaked by the time I climbed up more steps inside the monument.

The park itself is huge and features part of the old city wall and fortifications.  As I made my soggy way back down to an entrance near to one of the Metro stations I encountered a milling throng holding up cameras and mobile phones around the apparently famous 'five rams' statue. Near the bottom of the sometimes slippery stone path, a large boating lake had also attracted a lot of people.  My map told me that off in the other direction, to the North, are more lakes and formal gardens.

As you can see at the end of the album not everything in Guangzhou is a modern tower or well tended park.  There are still some shabby old style apartments with external air-conditioners and hanging clothes.  But when in China the newly built is so commonplace that the lens seeks out the old and once familiar. 

 


Images and Movie

To view the album click on this picture:

 

Blossoms 

Or click: Here...

 

 

Comments  

# Leslie Farkash 2017-07-24 13:56
Very good article Richard.

Whilst Dr. Strangelove is still a very scary prospect I have moved on to seeking motives and agendas that motivate military action ("And it is not that they envy our freedoms") that are far more likely to create conflict than the actions of a so called madman or Rogue State.

I had been scratching my head as to what is prompting all the sabre rattling, in and around the Korean Peninsular and you may have hit the nail on the head. An under the radar Korean Reunification plan/attempt.

That would make so much sense as to why China is being threatened, why all the nuclear posturing, lifting of Japans rearmament restrictions and the exposure of South Korea's corruption riddled government. In that light it has the makings of a reunified Vietnam.
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