Posts Tagged ‘korea’

Farewell to “Foolish President” Roh Moo-hyun

Koreans paying their last respects before motorcade leaves Seoul. (Photo credit:

Former president of Korea Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2007) died of severe head injuries suffered in a suicide attempt on May 23. Today (May 29) saw his national funeral and cremation. Thousands gathered in the city center to pay their last respects.

I was no supporter of the late President. I didn’t even vote for him since I was in the States at that time. But his death shocked me and truly saddened me.

I’ll say upfront that I do not condone suicide for any reason. But his death does reveal some ugly truths and disturbing trend about Korean society: it has consistently went after its leaders with a vengeance after they leave office.

  • Park Jung-hee (1963-79): We all know his term ended in his assassination. I actually remember crying. I was 10 at the time.
  • Chun Doo-hwan (1980-88): Indicted for embezzlement, corruption and abuse of power. In 1996, he was convicted and sentenced to death for treason and mutiny in his rise to power. Later pardoned
  • Roh Tae-woo (1988-93): In 1996, along with president Chun Doo-hwan, for corruption, indicted treason and mutiny. His sentence of 22 1/2 years in prison was later pardoned.
  • Kim Young-sam (1993-98): Ironically Kim who lead the anti-corruption investigations into this two successors, and in an attempt to reform powerful politically-tied Chaebols, found himself in a corruption scandal that implicated his son.
  • Kim Dae-jung (1993-2003): Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2000. He was later determined to have arranged his much publicized meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, only after an alleged payment (read: bribe) of $500 million. His second son also served 3 1/2 years in prison on charges of bribery.
  • Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008): He was subject to public humiliation as his immediate family and his closest aides were investigated for corruption and bribery.

Let’s put aside for a moment whether justice should be served at any cost. At the heart of the matter is the close link between business interest and political interest. This is what Korea is, right now. The two seems to have a hard time being separated. It’s also obvious media cannot be trusted given its overt political inclinations and biassed reporting. Anyone who goes after the establishment suffers either at the hands of the establishment itself or at the hand of their successors.

Given enough scrutiny and tenacious will to defame and reduce one’s political foe’s influence, there will always emerge something where you can hook the moral and political liability on. Nobody is perfect. Least of all Korean leaders.

Does Korean politics have a heart or the stomach for a forward-thinking visionary leader? No wonder some pine for president Park’s dictatorship years, which revisionist history claims was what laid the foundations for Korea’s incredible economic growth. Ask my father-in-law who worked for the Economic Planning Board, the highest government authority on economic matters, he will tell you it was some smart economic policy coupled with a lot of luck.

Funeral of President Roh Moo-hyun, May 29, 2009

Sign reads: “We are deeply sorry for not protecting you”. (Photo credit:

In her emotional speech at the funeral, Han Myung-suk, Roh’s Prime Minister apologized for not being able to protect the President from such an ending. This is a sentiment that was felt by the millions who came to pay their last respects across the nation at official and makeshift memorials. Those who were not supporters during his presidency, and those even despite being his supporters who were disappointed at Roh by this recent scandal turned out, tearful, resentful, and remorseful at the state of the nation and at not being able to have done more to protect the one they once believed in.

Maybe the self-proclaimed “Foolish President” Roh needed a “Chaney”. Someone who will ruthlessly defend and dog political foes so that the president can be protected, regardless of the fact that the administration’s policies may be misguided. In some way this is why Obama needs Biden. Someone who can navigate the rough and tumble waters of politics while he leads.

The question at the end of the day is can this unfortunate and deeply disturbing event be a catalyst for change? Can Korea’s politics be more focussed on being forward-looking than political in-fighting? Can it be more independent of business-interests? Can Korean politics have a strong social reform agenda equal to its economic growth agenda? Can Korea create socially-driven businesses as much as greed-driven businesses? Can Korea create vehicles for the civil sector to express and operate to initiate change? I truly hope so.

In his book “The Culture Code”, cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille claims that a culture “grows up” only after killing its king. I’m not sure if I agree with this, but let’s hope that this week’s painful lessons and needless death shall help the Korean political system wake-up, and mature a bit more.

Autumn Colors of Korea


Autumn in Namhan-San-Seong

Autumn is by far the most spectacular season in Korea, in my opinion. Since the 70% of Korea is mountainous, the transformation of color is quite dramatic. These photos were taken in Namhan-San-Seong Park, located about half-an-hour from Bundang where I live.

Autumn comes to Nahan-San-Seong
Autumn comes to Nahan-San-Seon

Growing up in Korea, going to visit Namhan-San-Seong always seemed to entail a long road trip to me, but I was shocked to see how close it had become. Seoul has expanded quite rapidly to the South since I last visited, and I now I find Namhan-San-Seong is actually between where I live, Bundang and Seoul itself.

My little ones are oblivious to these memories of Seoul’s past and present of course. As much as they seem permanent, cities do change. Both in our memory and physically.

More photos of Namhan-San-Seong in my Flickr set.

New Job, New City

JINA Architects

JINA Architects

I formally started working at JINA Architects on September 1, as an Associate Partner.

After a 9 year hiatus, I am back in architecture. Well not quite. It’s urbanism. JINA Architects is a more than a design studio. It’s currently has about 140 staff, a huge growth from having just over 30 a decade ago. Under the management of Eliot Bu (blog / mostly in Korean), it has transformed from just another architecture studio, doing mostly commercial and academic buildings, to now consulting for local and international government clients on urban design issues.

The key to its success? Design Knowledge. With any consulting practice, the key is consolidating and managing knowledge. In the case of JINA, knowledge enables the analysis of legal codes and policy that govern urban design practice. Corporations and architectural practices see the building code as a constraint they have to “deal with”. The government see the building code as a tool for regulating the quantity and quality development. And hence the lack of communication between the two. When you have a deep knowledge of codes then you can act as a medium between the two seemingly opposing entities, and the role that JINA has carved out for itself.

In the US and Europe, non-profits function to collect, analyze data and consolidate knowledge. These non-profits provide politically neutral facts that both businesses and policy makers have equal access to. Korea hasn’t reached that stage yet, with knowledge being held in closed government institution or corporate think tanks. Yet, this is one of the ultimate goals of JINA – to create a non-profit: to collect, analyze and provide access to urban design knowledge and through it to influence the quality of life and in turn, and as corny as it sounds, to change the world.

What is my role in all this? Eliot invited me to join JINA to head the project to develop the Master Urban Plan for the Expanded Hanoi Capital which they were finally officially awarded Sept 23.

Am I qualified? My lack of urban design experience surely would pose a handicap. In the words of Eliot, this is the exact reason I was offered the job, apparently. Urbanism is more than engineering and construction. It’s about the lives of people and hence more infinitely complex, and in dire need of a new approach. He wanted an outsider, untainted by ingrained urban design practices to seek a new approach that incorporates the wide range of expertise that have typically been left out.

For the Hanoi project we have experts in energy policy, international affairs, marketing, sustainability, urban sociology, cultural studies, clean energy development, Vietnam legal system in addition to local experts providing their perspective on how a city should be developed.

This a new approach to urbanism that hasn’t been attempted before and I am caught between fear and dread and shear excitement and optimism that I have been lucky enough to have been offered the opportunity to participate in such a history event of developing a master plan for a city.

We will be changing the lives of the millions in Hanoi. And I know already that Hanoi is a city that will change my life. I have to believe it is a calling, and I am humbled.

I won’t be moving to Vietnam as the title might suggest. But I will be making frequent visits to Hanoi. The title’s just a play on the last time I posted about a new job, New City, New Job. That time, I found a city and then found a new job. This time I found a new job which found a city.

Thoughts on Sustainability or How to Grow Vegetables in the City

Community Garden in Bundang

Community Garden in Bundang, Korea
The sign reads: No gardening. The land is owned by Korea Land Corporation and will soon be sold and developed, therefore any cultivation is forbidden. No compensation shall be made for any damages to illegally cultivated goods. May 2005. – Korea Land Corporation

It is said that what is everybody’s is nobody’s. When something lacks ownership it tends to be abused or neglected.

This long Chuseok weekend, I finally had a little extra time to explore my neighborhood. I live in Bundang, which is one of 5 planned satellite cities (link in Korean) created to house the ever-growing population who work in Seoul. It is one of the better ones with a lot of (interesting) open space running through the rows and rows of mind-numbingly boring monolithic slab apartment blocks. I live in its far corner which ain’t all that bad, at the foot of some nearby hills with hiking paths.

On my walk, I noticed a empty plot of land, where people were growing vegetables, in the adjacent lot next to where my 3 block apartment complex stands. There are signs scattered across the plot which forbid any cultivation. I passed by without thinking too much, but this plot of land lingered in my mind long enough to form a series of questions what bubbled up to consciousness:

1. Why was it empty?

In a place like Bundang, where land is so precious, and high-valued, there must be a good reason why it is empty. According to records, it been zoned for residential development and is owned by the Korea Land Corporation, which is the government organization that developed Bundang. Signs on the land state that it will be developed soon, but it’s dated 2005. I’m not sure why it’s being left intentionally empty.

2. What was happening in this empty plot?

It was being cultivated as a community garden. Elderly residents of the nearby apartment blocks have taken over the land, and have planted all sorts of vegetables used in common Korean cuisine.

3. Why was this happening?

What is interesting here is that a vacuum is being filled not with abuse (e.g. communal trash heap) but with productivity (communal vegetable garden). Koreans, especially elderly ones, have a very strong attachment to the earth. My dad has it. He’s always been fostering a romantic dream of retiring to a house on a small plot of land where he can grow his own vegetables. I have never seen him grow anything in my years as his son.

4. What does it have to do with sustainability?

There are 3 components to sustainable communities in the broadest sense: Economic, Environmental and Social. The environmental is the middle sibling that gets all the media attention, but it cannot exist without its two companions.

In my mind, the example of elderly Koreans appropriating empty land for vegetable growing is on a small scale and example of sustainability in practice. It’s obviously environmentally sustainable. It’s also economically sustainable. Elderly people live on meager stipends, with a fixed income, so these people growing their own vegetables close to home make economic sense. But what is equally important is the social sustainability. No sustainable practice can be truly be sustainable without a strong social component: Growing their own vegetables give elderly people a sense of purpose and self-esteem. They are less apt to nag their kids because they have something to do, and it gives them a good reason to invite friend and family over to enjoy the food, or to invite themselves over, to bring over homegrown vegetable to their no-time-for-real-food kids who are too busy scraping a living together. It also provides a generational bridge for grandchildren to work alongside grandparent, not to mention all the knowledge sharing that occurs between gardeners.

In short, the 3 components together create a loop that enriches lives of all residents. A sustainable community.

I’m wondering why more housing developments don’t just create communal vegetable plots with their communal land, which most often suffers from bad landscaping or in worst cases, just cemented over to lower maintenance. Each resident could be assigned a plot of land in the communal garden. If they don’t care for gardening they can lease their land for a fee or freely to those who do care. It’s like guaranteed parking space.

I never cared much for growing things myself, but I can see why people do. I must be getting old.

Community gardening has been formalized in the US and UK, but from my shallow internet search (Naver, Google), there doesn’t seem to be any formalized grassroots (nice pun!) organizations in Korea as yet.

[update 2008-09-18] Found an entry on Urban Agriculture on Wikipedia (my italics):

Urban farming is generally practiced for income-earning or food-producing activities though in some communities the main impetus is recreation and relaxation. Urban agriculture contributes to food security and food safety in two ways: first, it increases the amount of food available to people living in cities, and, second, it allows fresh vegetables and fruits and meat products to be made available to urban consumers. A common and efficient form of urban agriculture is the biointensive method. Because urban agriculture promotes energy-saving local food production, urban and peri-urban agriculture are generally seen as sustainable practices.

Given that soon 50% of the world’s population will be living in cities, and many of the new residents would have migrated from agriculture, it would seem to make sense for rapidly growing cities to reserve land around the city for agriculture. This would also form a natural buffer to resist urban sprawl and promote density in urban areas.

To feed a city with a population of 10 Million (Seoul, New York etc), you need to import 6000 tonnes of food each day.


In the past couple of days, they (Korea Land Corporation) walled off the community garden in the photo, with a big sign saying it is being leveled to make way for new housing. Inevitable but still sad.

2009-08-03 has an article about the growth of neighborhood farming practices in the US: Urban farming takes root in surprising new ways.

Cytogether: Cyworld’s Social Action Network

Cyworld\'s social action website

Cyworld's social action website

Recently I decided to take a systematically look at online social action sites in Korea, and whenever possible trying to arrange an informal interview with the sites’ manager(s) to gain a little more insight into their operations and also get a better general sense of the landscape for online social action in Korea. How is the internet bettering the lives of the less privileged in Korea, and how is it achieving social impact?

A couple of weeks ago, I netted my first site, when I had a chance to sit down and talk with Ms. Park Jie-hyun who is one of the manager’s of Cyworld’s Cytogether service.

Cyworld, for those who don’t know, pretty much dominates the online social networking space in Korea. Having launched in 1999 it boasts 22 million or over to a third of the Korean population as its members.

All things that go up must come down and Cyworld is no exception. Lately it has seen a noticeable decline in traffic, as it struggles to find the next generation of services that will appeal to the hyper internet-savvy Korean users. To add insult to injury, it has seen a string of failed launches abroad, due in no small part to its over-confidence in its platform and hence a failure to recognize and pay due-diligence to cultural difference in the way that users in different cultures use the internet socially. It has all but abandoned many of the markets it has entered abroad, and the US may soon be its latest casualty.

Despite its many ailments, one of the bright spots in Cyworld’s traffic is its online social action site, Cytogether or in Korean, ??????, which literally translates to: "a world of good relationships" or more meaningfully, "a world where we get along".

Cytogether uses the Cyworld platform of socially networking its members to achieve 3 main functions: online donations, online petitions and matching volunteers with non-profit organizations. It was launched in 2005, and has currently over 800 registered non-profits and NGO’s in its network. Users can choose to donate to these vetted organization by giving "dotori", Cyworld’s online currency, or by changing to their mobile phone service, which allows for monthly planned donations. Current stats show about USD 20,000-30,000 in online donations (monthly average of about USD 0.90 per donor), about 5,000-10,000 petition signups daily and about 20-30 volunteer matches per day. The most active issues on the site are children (abuse, education, poverty etc.) and, surprisingly, animal rights.

Ms. Park mentioned some of the challenges facing Cytogether:

  • All the duties of promoting, managing, vetting, organizing and improving the site fall on the shoulders of 3 full-time and 1 part-time staff hance the site is extremely resource-strapped;
  • Balancing the promotion of its 800+ member organization on its homepage is no small feat. Organization are always approaching them with "emergency" situations and demand that they be highlighted. Cytogether, to its credit does provide training sessions for its member organizations, organized on a quarterly basis;
  • Better storytelling of member organization causes, activities, and success stories. It hasn’t been doing an effective job communicating the human stories in a more personable voice.

Despite its challenges, Cytogether plans to perform a major update of the site, and focus its offering towards the end of 2008, and partner with a recruiting service to offer job matching services to the unemployed and senior citizens.

The current value of Cytogether lies in its ability to provide exposure to charity organization that would otherwise won’t have the budget or the wherewithal to promote themselves. Traffic is showing steady growth over the past 3 years, where at launch, the site was encouraging its members to give a couple of "dotori" (each is worth about USD 0.10), to now there are regular donations of USD 10.00. The ratio of one-time donors to monthly donors is also on the rise, now standing at around 7 to 3 members.

To me the issue with Cytogether seems to be one of focus. It’s currently everything to everyone. The argument is that it’s a "platform". But I don’t think that relieves them of the tough responsibility of championing key causes. Cyworld is currently too influential not to be using its influence it bring to light tough social issues. Does it want to be IKEA or Herman Miller?

It is also apparent that there is a possibility that Cytogether may outlive its relationship with its parent Cyworld. Just as Cyworld, Cytogether is a platform for activity, there really is no reason why Cytogether cannot be an independent service. If the current downward trend of traffic and popularity in Cyworld continues, it may be in everyone’s best interest for the two to part ways.

Walking away from the interview, my head was full of ideas for improving Cytoether’s service:

  • Donor’s wall: If you go to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, to the right of the entrance there is a wall of all the top donors to the museum. Recognize that some people (organizations) like to be recognized. A page could list large donations;
  • API: Go viral. Allow bloggers to promote Cytogether on their site through a widget or a badge. A widget can show causes/organizatios that they support;
  • Better member profiling: After a member donates, send a follow-up email with a link to a survey that identify what issues and causes the member is interested in. It can also ask members to opt-in for alerts. Building a database benefits both the users and Cytogether to provide more relevant content;
  • Targeted alerts: Based on database mentioned above, Cytoether can send targeted action alerts to those members who have opted in;
  • Matching donations: Corporations and workplaces can sign up to provide matching donations for employee donations;
  • Corporate badges: Cytogether can provide corporations supporting Cytogether "official" badges to indicate that they support Cytogether;
  • Stronger member networking: Members of Cyworld should have tools to alert each other to causes they support;
  • Better "minihomepy" integration: Member "minihomey" (which is Cyworld’s member profile page) should indicate that the member supports an organization or cause on Cytogether and encourage visitors to do the same.

I have no means looked at online social action in Korea in any depth, but from initial research, it seems, like many other things in Korea, to be dominated by large corporations and their services or foundations. Naver, the online behemoth, has a service called Happy Bean, where users register to accrue a "bean" every time they use Naver’s service, such as their email. Each bean is a matching donation from Naver of about USD 0.10 and users can donate these beans to a cause of their choice. This seems awfully self-serving and borders on being unethical to me. CJ Foundation (CJ is a member of Samsung extended "family") has Donors Camp modeled on Donors Choose (Charles Best of Donors Choose actually consulted on the project).

Despite this sad state of affairs, Korea does still have one of the most participatory online cultures in the world. And by all indications it seems like the online donations and participation is on the rise. My hope is that all that participation blossoms into social awareness and responsibility, and flows into growth of grassroots online social action and services.