Posts Tagged ‘seoul’

Snowy day in Seoul

Snowy day in Seoul

Snow in Seoul

Seoul saw the heaviest snowfall in recorded history today. Make you realize how short “recorded history” actually is. We got about 24-25cm of snow.

Tried for a couple of hours to make it to work on this first working day of 2010, but public transportation was a mess. Gave up after a couple of hours and took the day off to take picture and have fun with the kids.

More photos.

Green roof sightings in Seoul

Daum Communications / Ilshin Building

Green roof tops Daum Communications / Ilshin Building, Seoul, Korea

Seoul is not known for it eco-friendly building designs, but a couple of buildings I encountered recently, which have significant green roofs, have made me thinks that there may be hope yet for this city.

A Green roof according the Wikipedia:

A green roof is a roof of a building that is partially or completely covered with vegetation and soil, or a growing medium, planted over a waterproofing membrane. This does not refer to roofs which are merely colored green, as with green roof shingles.

The most significant benefit of green roofs are:

  • Reduces cooling cost in the summer
  • Reduces the city’s average temperature
  • Reduces stormwater run off

The best known green roofs are Chicago City Hall, The GAP Headquarters and Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant.

Daum Communications / Ilshin Building

Click image to view slideshow

Yesterday I visited the new offices of Daum Communications, the distant-second-but-nicer-place-to-work Korean portal site (#1 is It is housed in the newly completed Ilshin building in Hannam-dong which is also the home to the Italian embassy. On the roof of the building I was surprised to discover a green roof. The chairman/CEO of Ilshin Spinning, Kim Young Ho, the building’s owner, is no stranger to design and architecture, having graduated with an architecture degree from Pratt in NY, and served on the board of the Korean Institute of Architects and also know for his formidable modern art collection. The anecdote recounted by one of the Daum staff was that he delayed the opening of the staff cafeteria on the 2nd floor of the this building because he was not happy with the design of trays.

ewha Communications / Ilshin Building

Click image to view slideshow

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at Ewha Womans University (Note: “Womans” is not a misspelling), one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Korea. I was very impressed by their recently completed the Ewha Campus Complex, which was designed by French architect, Dominique Perrault. The building itself unnoticeable at first glance since it is half buried in the ground, but this makes for an impressive green roof.

Dongdaemoon Design Plaza (photo:

Dongdaemoon Design Plaza

Ground was recently broken for Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which replaces the aging Dongdaemoon Sports Complex. The London-based architect Zaha Hadid was awarded the commission following an international competition. The most prominent feature of the design is its fluid surface green roof that weaves and connects the various part of the design.

Seoul, 15 years ago

Mapo, Seoul, 1994

Click image to view slideshow of Mapo redevelopment, 1994

Digging through some old photos, I found this set I took in 1994, of Mapo area, in Seoul. This area had been home to many informal settlers (so called “moon village” or 달동네) but had been “condemned” to be redeveloped and replaced by more of Seoul’s ubiquitous apartment blocks.

David Kilburn, in a comment to one of my previous post Hanoi: Think different wrote about Seoul:

… A Korean architect I know describes modern Seoul as a city designed to drive people insane. This is a far cry from Korea’s own architectural traditons where it was always important that buildings were designed to nestle harmoniously into the landscape, neither dominating nor destroying it. The geomantic ideas that are better known as the Chinese ‘Feng Shui’ were always important. Nowadays, the landscape is eradicated to pave the way for squadrons of identikit apartment blocks? Who benefits, certainly not the residents. The real beneficiaries are the owners of constructio companies, real estate speculators, and the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who play their own role in detroying quality of life.

David has a very interesting documentary The Destruction of Kahoi Dong about the destruction of Han-ok’s (traditional Korean houses) in Seoul.

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 leaderswith a vengeanceafter 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.

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.