Sunday, July 29, 2012

The torture chambers at Namsan

I love Namsan. It's probably my favourite place in Seoul, as much for the view from the top as the running and the quiet on its sides. I'd heard oblique mentions to torture chambers there in the past, but having read that they were located under Namsan, I took the term literally, imagining them to be under Namsan in the way that the Namsan tunnels go under Namsan. However, the truth is that the KCIA, the forerunner to today's National Intelligence Service, and the Agency for National Security Planning that came between the two, maintained a complex of buildings that are mostly still in existence today. 

This image, which I've borrowed from the good people at the Democracy Road, shows buildings on the north side of Namsan between Namsan and Myeongdong, and their present function. Among them are the studios for the TBS radio station, where I've been a few times, as well as the offices of the Korean Red Cross and, most notably, the Seoul Youth Hostel, which is not only on the site of the former KCIA headquarters, but it's actually the exact same building.

Many well-known activists and dissidents were tortured and died here. This article from May interviews representative Lim Su-kyung about her experiences, along with providing a great deal of information on how these buildings were used and, typical in a country where modern history is something that nobody wants to discuss, the bid by many organizations to have the entire area turned into a memorial park to human rights.

Personally, if I could, I would build a Park Chung-hee Experience Zone (박정희체험관) to compliment the Park Chung-hee Memorial Hall that already exists next to the Seoul World Cup Stadium (here's a news article on the topic, with the headline quoting an old man who asks why the memorial is so small). The Experience Zone could use one of the buildings left behind by the two intelligence agencies, with exhibits on the first-floor and various torture apparatus to help re-create the era that so many older Koreans remember so fondly.

One of the most unfortunate things about Seoul is that, for a city that has been a capital for over 600 years and a city for 2,000 years, there is not much visible history. This is as much a result of colonization and war as it is relentless re-development, to the point that you could tell me this city was built from scratch forty years ago and I would believe you. Korea, as a very image-conscious country with a highly fractious recent history, will probably never highlight Namsan's bloody history for domestic or foreign visitors, leaving both to assume that Namsan is nothing more than a pleasant place with a lot of travel agencies that specialize in Chinese visas on its north side.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book #6: Les Miserables

It wasn't until I finished my abridged version of Les Miserables last year that I realized it didn't mention many of the events I heard as being in the novel, and that therefore I actually hadn't finished the book. I had only finished the first two volumes out of five. So, I went back and bought an unabridged version of the novel, which took several months to read, a time during which it doubled as a pillow during hikes and trips to the beach.

Reading the last three volumes made the novel more meaningful, though I think the first two volumes were better-written. The novel is vast in its scope and its themes. After finishing it, I read the introduction (why read a detailed analysis of a book I've never even read?) and was heartened to see the translator mention that much of the book was superfluous and completely irrelevant to the novel, amounting to so much well-written prose. Victor Hugo's painstakingly detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo is perhaps the best example, as I spent about two hours reading the 50-page retelling while searching in vain for any clue to see how it related to the novel.

As with the Hunchback of Notre Dame, my favourite thing about reading this novel was that it was set in Paris, an old, grimy city. A close second, though, was the interweaving of contemporary French history with the plot. The fourth volume describes the republican June Rebellion of 1832, and I read the scene where the French national guard moved in on the waiting republicans in the last few days, at roughly the same time that Syrian rebels in Aleppo braced for an assault on the city from the Syrian army.

For French republicans the 1832 rebellion was one fight out of many over a period lasting nearly a century, before the monarchy and its various restorations were finally abolished, finally fulfilling the goal of the French Revolution. Though I'm pessimistic about the future growth of democracy as the American and Western share of influence in the world wanes, there has been reason for optimism in the two years since Andrew Sullivan and I wrote our respective posts. Dictatorships have tumbled in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Myanmar, counted as some of the worst dictatorships in the world, with Syria, another such peer, looking more and more likely to join the list.

Closer to where I write this, North Korea and China, stronger dictatorships than any that have fallen so far if not the strongest dictatorships ever, are as strong as ever. There is no chance that China will become a democracy any time soon, and I would be shocked if it happened even in my lifetime. Nevertheless, China's prosperity is allowing its citizens the luxury to demand things like clean air and the freedom to not die in train accidents. This is unlikely to produce democracy or meaningful elections, but it just might make China an increasingly responsive dictatorship, similar to Hong Kong or Singapore.

As for North Korea, I'm unconvinced that it will even cease to exist as a state any time soon, much less become a democracy. While we get excited about even the prospect of insignificant reforms in North Korea, like letting women wear pants, we often term these reforms as being Chinese in nature, which is a good indication of what the best-case scenario is for North Korea, following China's trajectory about thirty years after it happened. If Kim Jong-eun is going to put the economy ahead of the military and some degree of ideology, 2012 will still be to North Korea what 1979 was to China, extending the life of the dictatorship rather than bringing about its end.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Are American athletes at London competing in American-made shoes?

Or, for that matter, are American politicians wearing American-made suits when fulminating about causes that are as unrealistic as they are meaningless and difficult to oppose? Ralph Lauren caved quickly when politicians complained, though complained is putting it mildly considering that some politicians threatened to burn the uniforms, about the company had American uniforms for the opening ceremony at the Olympics made in China. If there's one thing politicians around the world do well, it's meaningless symbolism in the face of an actual crisis, such as taking the irreversible loss of jobs in America's manufacturing sector and responding to it with the demand that Olympic uniforms be produced domestically.

If these outfits ought to be manufactured domestically given that American athletes will be representing their country to the world while wearing them, then surely the suits that American politicians wear (ROK Drop should be advised, though, that US presidents at least wear American-made suits) when representing their people should also be made domestically . It is likely that the politicians complaining about this seldom wear clothing manufactured in America, never use an American-made cell phone and may well not drive an American-made car.

American athletes certainly don't wear American-made shoes when competing at the Olympics, not to mention American-made athletic apparel, and virtually nothing will change this. Whether America should go to the length it has to ensure that a small number of lowly-paid jobs come back to America while raising costs for a variety of products is a larger debate that no one, at least no sensible person, is having, because it makes for an awful solution. Millions of unemployed Americans might go for these jobs in the meantime, but I think America could probably promise its unemployed better than a $10-per-hour job making athletic apparel or goofy Ralph Lauren apparel.

There are developed countries that continue to play major roles in manufacturing, and they are Germany, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, among others. All these countries, much like most, though not all, people who have a good job anywhere, manage to do this by doing something that others can't do. No amount of symbolism and nationalism will ever make it possible for Americans to earn a middle-class wage, the sort that lets them take vacations and own a home, without even a high school diploma in the way that was possible for so long.

The future for American manufacturing is to develop some sort of specialty or skill, the kind that The Atlantic profiled some time ago, where workers with a technical education produce items that low-skilled workers in China or Bangladesh can't make. This is already happening, but the shift from unskilled to skilled manufacturing on a large scale in America is one plausible solution to the biggest problem it faces, that of the inability of those outside the professional class to make a comfortable living. America, in this typically absurd made-for-TV pseudo-crisis at least was able to identify that something is wrong, but didn't even manage to grasp the solution.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Movie review: 연가시 (Yeongasi)

I saw this movie at 11 am yesterday and since I didn't buy the tickets myself, I was surprised afterwards to learn that CGV offers no discounts for watching a movie at 11 am on a Saturday. The movie has an interesting premise though it explores it in some of the strangest ways conceivable, sort of like 28 Days Later meets Erin Brokovich meets Moby Dick, but the whole thing is made interesting because, I think, disaster movies suit Korean cinema quite well.

 In other disaster movies where there is a lethal virus, such as 28 Days Later or Contagion, large, chaotic crowds and draconian government measures are shocking but seem far from the realm of possibilities. In Korea, where large, chaotic crowds are a daily norm as the result of Korea being a tiny, crowded country and draconian government measures are also a daily norm, this aspect of a disaster movie is more believable.

The movie begins with dead, horrifyingly dehydrated bodies appearing in streams and rivers across the country. Gradually, though only about 40 minutes into a 2-hour movie, it is worked out that the deaths are the result of an infection by a massive waterborne worm(?) that dehydrates its victims and causes them to seek out water as a place where the worm can lay its eggs. Most victims die as a result of drowning, though others are found dead surrounded by yellow vomit, dead from causes I didn't quite understand.

Eventually, it's concluded that anybody who has been to the sea, a water park or any other body of water has been exposed to the virus, leading to all bodies of water being declared out of limits. This, along with the quarantine of victims that follows, is less inconceivable in Korea than elsewhere, considering that it is a small country with a strong federal government that can pretty much do whatever it wants. Scenes of chaotic crowds at hospitals, train stations or other public places are also not far-fetched, not because Koreans are necessarily more selfish in case of a disaster, but because this is already the case thanks to its three-day national holidays, mass public gatherings and its protests. The latter two certain go hand-in-hand sometimes, as was the case in 2008.

At any rate, the movie has a very novel idea, to me at least, and I thought another thing it did well was the melodrama. Just about every Korean movie you see will have long, cathartic scenes consisting of nothing but wailing and weeping. This is often as inexplicable as our preoccupation with the hero getting the girl, but here it's not too bad given that when someone you know and love dies suddenly and inexplicably, you probably will cry. Contrast that with the way parents of deceased children are interviewed on Law and Order SVU: they are composed, barely weeping, and so detached that it sounds like they're reading the phone book back to you.

Sadly, aside from these two and maybe a couple of other interesting ideas or high points, the rest of the movie is as cliche and as cheesy as any disaster movie you've ever seen, complete with over-the-top scenes of tragedy and heart-warming inspiration that you will cringe, roll your eyes and laugh at the absurdity of it all. There's the heartless corporation that can allow competitors to make generic copies of the antidote but can't, the courageous whistleblower who doesn't give a damn about the rules, the politician who says "I don't care whether it's legal or not, I care about saving lives" and maybe the cheesiest scene I've ever seen in a movie over the last 20 years, the main character driving a truck through the steel gates of the corporation's headquarters after protesters clear a path for him like the Red Sea parting for Moses.

I would see Yeongasi for nothing but the interesting ideas it has, though they might seem less interesting if you have more than a vague familiarity with Korean cinema, as is the case for me. It's certainly better than the average movie you see in theatres. Even if you don't speak much or any Korean, you'll find much of the movie easy enough to follow, though some of the plot twists and details near the end will be harder to follow. It might be better to be insulated from some of the film's duller moments and saccharine remarks, I suppose, though you'd wind up with an over-inflated sense of its worth similar to myself.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Seven: the number of runners at the men's Olympic Trials 10k and the number of living Prime Ministers

At the Canadian Olympic Trials 10k, seven men and four women ran in two separate 10,000-metre races. There were a total of 11 runners in both races, and if you count all the finishers in the 5,000 and 10,000, you end up with a grand total of 32 runners who ran. The times weren't much to write home about. The winning times in the 5,000 were 14:34 and 16:15, while the winning times in the 10,000 were 30:49 and 35:18. Just three women finished the women's 10,000.

If you look online, you'll find excuses like the difficulty of the Olympic standards, the altitude in Calgary (about 3500 feet), or the slow track, but consider that you would probably get faster distance runners at any well-promoted road race than you did at this particular meet, which is a national championship even if those who finish in the top three do not go on to the Olympics.

At the Kenyan Olympic Trials, held at a higher altitude in Nairobi (about 5400 feet), nine women ran under 33 minutes. Just three men managed to do this in Calgary, and one of them isn't even a citizen. It's not that Canada doesn't have some very good 10,000-metre runners, including Trials winner Mohammed Ahmed, who ran 27:34 earlier this year. It's that the national championships evidently don't mean anything since virtually none of the best runners show up.

The marathon is doing very well and the middle distances are always strong, but while America can have qualifying rounds in the 5k, Canada doesn't even have enough people to run the race to make it look all that different from a workout. There is something clearly wrong here, but the chances are that if anyone even noticed, they would simply shrug and be happy that Cam Levins ran 13:18 and 27:23 this year, but not notice that he was able to win a national championship by running 14:34, a time that might not even win the Ontario high school meet (the IAAF scoring tables list 14:34 as equivalent to an 8:30 3k, this year's winning time was 8:22).

There is something that America is doing right but most of the Western world, Canada included, is doing wrong when it comes to running on the track. True, Canada has a mini-resurgence in the marathon, but we're celebrating times that Canadians ran almost 40 years ago. The runners doing this are aware, and I think they're doubtless capable of faster times, with the runners to follow hopefully capable of still faster times in a few years. That doesn't mask the problem and it doesn't address the problem of how, for the craze surrounding high school times, rankings, championships and trips to the World Youth or World Junior championships, almost nobody seems to run after the age of 22 or 23, at least not with the single-minded devotion needed to compete at the world-class level.

In a month's time, we just might see Cam Levins finish in the top 10 in the men's 10,000, while the marathoners would do well to finish in the top 20 after recording 25th and 33rd-place finishes at Berlin in 2009. However, this won't solve the problems of facing the sport domestically, particularly on the track. I don't know why it is that Americans will show up to run national championships at any distance, though I suspect that money might have something to do with it, along with the chicken-and-egg issue of competition. Nobody shows up because there isn't any competition, and there isn't any competition because nobody shows up.

In that sense, Leslie Sexton, this year's Canadian women's 10,000-metre champion, deserves a heap of applause for, as one message board poster put it, supposedly ducking the competition in the 5,000 to run 25 laps with just three other women. Sexton is one of the few who can put her feet, if not her money, where her mouth is, writing to that same message board critic that she would have no leg to stand on when it came to bemoaning a lack of participation in the sport if she didn't participate herself.