What happens on Jeju…

Where is Jeju Island?
Never heard of it? I thought my geography was pretty good. I know locals call the Mongolian capital “U.B.” and that the capital of New York isn’t New York, but I was completely stumped by Jeju. Was it near Seoul? Were we to take a ferry? No and no. Jeju sits off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula and, far from being unknown, it has an international airport that services 300+ flights a day.
So there you go. Jeju very much.
The vacation vibe hit us as soon as we landed, with sea air wafting over the tarmac and through the terminal, where crowds clad in leisurewear meandered in a state of relaxed bewilderment. Many of those 300+ flights a day carry tour groups from across South Korea, Japan and China, including some who are redefining the parameters of holiday headwear. Sightseeing? Arc Welding?

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These were the first impressions, but our Jeju Odyssey was to take in a lot more than headwear appreciation and selfie-stick shock (more on that later). With the help of Jeju local, Jeung (great guide and great company), Haejoo had once again pieced together a wonderful program – this time encompassing vulcanology, culture, politics, cuisine and norebang (aka, karaoke).

Jeju #1 To start proceedings, we were treated to a meal. I won’t say much on the matter. But abalone, sea urchin, acorn jelly and seafood pancake were involved.

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Jeju #2 Next stop was a meeting with the Jeju Tourism Organisation’s Mr Shin, an exuberant gentleman who gave us an outline of challenges Jeju faces as a travel destination. As we observed at the airport, Jeju has indeed become a tour-group magnet. Visitor numbers had jumped by 30% in the last year or so, putting a strain on infrastructure, and causing some disgruntlement among locals, who put up with crowds yet watch as money is spent at the privately run duty free outlets, and casinos. Getting the balance right between financial gain and environmental/cultural cost will be a tough task for the people of Jeju.

Jeju #3 Next stop was the coastal village of Gangjeong, where villagers are waging a David versus Goliath battle against the SK Government’s construction of a massive naval base on the village foreshore. It has been more than five years since protests began, and legal avenues have been exhausted, but those opposing the base continue to rally at the site – a concrete carbuncle between the beach and Gangjeong’s tangerine orchards.

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After a look at the area, we were met by protestors at the community centre. They spoke of how their community had been split by the issue. Some had accepted incentives (which in some cases weren’t 100% delivered), some had been jailed. Many families were divided on the issue, yet protesters continued to voice their anger at the massive military presence being built on their doorstep. More info at http://savejejunow.org.

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Jeju #4 Visiting one of Jeju’s eight casinos certainly wasn’t on the schedule. But after a heart-stopping meal of ‘black pork’ and beer, a walk was in order, in the hope of regaining some pulmonary capability. And, really, you couldn’t avoid the nearby casino: standing between the main road and the beach, it glistened with faux roman architecture, lightshow fountains (plus Dutch windmills), globulous swimming pools and an Eastern European jazz trio noodling in the bar (one member playing organ and bassoon).

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Down a neon-lit walkway and past the security/ID check (Korean nationals are not allowed into Jeju’s casinos) sprawled the games room. I expected high-dazzle, but the space looked more like a B-grade conference space with bad feng shui. Games tables were scattered irregularly across the area – mostly baccarat, but also blackjack, roulette, and something involving dice. Men and women in rusty leather jackets and clunky jewellery flicked cards and made odd hand gestures while puffing on cigarettes. K-pop mumbled in the background, black-clad employees meerkatted their way around the tables and chips went clickety clack…as they no doubt still are.

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A glorious day beamed through the hotel breakfast room, so I finished my tangerines, persimmons, corn flakes and dishwater coffee, and went for a ‘quick’ walk to the beach. The road snaked past golf courses and the back-end of resorts, and spat me out on a sweet little bay scattered remnant beach furniture. Birds flapped among the vegetation that, due to the cliff face, hadn’t been manicured by hotel staff.
Sensitive to Haejoo’s schedule, I scampered back up the hill and took a shortcut through one of the resorts. Bad move. These multi-level, pool-obstructing edifii suck you in never to be seen again. When passing staff members I tried to look like I belonged at the resort, but the absence of monogrammed sweater and selfie-stick marked me as an interloper. I didn’t want to be there; they didn’t want me to be there. A side entrance was my escape, but I then spent days winding past shiny black saloons trying to find a familiar landmark.
By the time I got back to the hotel it was indeed time to leave and, after a quick stop for coffee, we headed east for a day of sightseeing…

Jeju Sightseeing A We could not have had a better day to promenade along the cliff tops, looking down onto tessellated rock formations and the alluring ocean. The crowds of selfie-stick toting sightseers only added to the enjoyment.

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Jeju Sightseeing B Seongeup is a beautifully restored 14th-century village, with pampas-roofed houses and a perimeter wall made of volcanic rock. All helpful when the Japanese invade (as they were once wont to do). The wall’s use is obvious; the pampas-roof not so much. Factoid: a grass roof keeps out rain, but allows smoke to escape slowly, so plumes won’t be spotted by marauding pirates. Here endeth the lesson.

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Jeju Sightseeing C Jeju was formed by volcanic activity, and is pockmarked with hundreds of craters –  the youngest being Seongsan Ilchulbong, jutting out from the western coast. Its image can be seen on posters, postcards, refresher towelette packaging, water-bottle labels…

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Yet to see it firsthand is still breathtaking. As is the climb. Even so, thousands hit the trail everyday, to soak in the view and make use of their selfie sticks.

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Jeju Sightseeing Lunch Abalone on a bed of rice cooked in a dolsot (hot stone pot). Mmmm. This was followed by a late-day stroll on a beach on Jeju’s northwest coast – at a little spot that was once favoured by Koreans opting out of the career-focused frenzy of modern life. Development put a stop to that, although the area is still quaint, yet to be shadowed by rambling resorts.

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There were more activities that evening, involving lava tubes, sashimi and the 1985 hit ‘Take on Me’ by A-ha. But some things are better left on Jeju.

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Meeting Professor Nho (& K-Pop)

It’s not everyday you get to have breakfast with a South Korean sociologist. Over coffee, boiled eggs and watermelon we had the chance to talk to Professor Nho Myung woo from Ajou University south of Seoul, who generously helped to put our jumbled observation and speculation about South Korean society into perspective.

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A drive for achievement has become synonymous with South Korea. It is what brought the country up from being battered by war to a global player. But Professor Nho explained that this drive was indeed having a detrimental effect on the psyche of the nation. What room was there for creativity, or even reflection, when so much pressure is put upon getting into the right school, the right university, the right company?
We asked Professor Nho if there was a growing emergence of ‘dissent’ to this competitive culture. Paraphrasing here: he said it was minimal, and even if parents-to-be claim they won’t put their child through such a system, they change their view once the child is born.
This approach, Professor Nho confirmed, is entrenched in Korean society, and is hard to budge: even though the economic miracle has occurred (actually not a miracle; simply a case of dogged determination), it is as if Koreans cannot stop.
And sometimes they stop in a tragic manner, with the country having the highest suicide rate in the OECD. The demographic most represented in this is the young, who suffer the ‘fierce stress’ of study and societal expectation. But the elderly also figure highly – Professor Nho explained how the nation’s wealth certainly didn’t spread far, and poverty among the elderly was acute. In this age group, females figured more prominently than males.
And what is the government’s perspective on suicide? Professor Nho explained that the Korean government sees it as a ‘personal matter’.
We thank Professor Nho for his valuable perspective. It was great to break bread with him, and delightful when he pointed out that he recently featured in a Big Issue Korea article.

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Well that was the meat & potatoes part of the blog…NOW FOR THE WIZZ-FIZZ!
K-POPPED
I don’t know how she swindled it, but Haejoo from KPF got us into a K-POP studio performance. We had to wait in line with other K-pop fanatics for about an hour. A selfie fest ensued…

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But the wait was totally worth it to see up-and-comers Almeng sing their cracker song “Phone in Love“! We were explicitly told that no pics were to be taken. But, well, I took one.

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For a better understanding, check out Almeng’s video: 

The Big Issue (Gangnam Style)

Another stunning autumn day in the ROK capital. Trees are really showing off their warmer hues and the warmth is hanging in there. A beautiful day to venture around the world’s most trending districts, Gangnam.

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But I’ve jumped too far forward; the day really began (as it thankfully has all week) in the lobby of the Koreana Hotel, where we were met by our magnificent Korean Press Foundation enablers/saviours: Haejoo, Jiyoon, Claire and, on the bus, the raffish Mr Lee.
Returning to a world where a day of meeting a wide range of interesting people isn’t planned for me, and I get don’t get around town in a nifty bus…is going to be difficult.
There were a number of engaging meetings today, the diversity of which reflecting how much effort and thought has gone into this schedule. There were emissions-trading strategy briefings at the Korea Energy Economics Institute, a Roy Hill project overview at Samsung C&T, and a strategy Q&A at the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. In all cases absorbing discussion ensued, and my business-card collection haemorrhaged.

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Add to this a marvellous bibimbap lunch and a wander around Gangnam in the sun…the day could not get better.
But it did. Late in the afternoon translator extraordinaire Claire and I headed off (dashing Mr Lee at the wheel) to the central bus station, where we met with the delightful Big Issue vendor, Mr Oh – known to friends and customers as ‘Killer Smile’, for obvious reasons.

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I hope to write Mr Oh’s story into a Vendor Profile for The Big Issue soon, as his account is better than a Korean Soap Opera: dragging himself up from homelessness and isolation; garnering purpose and hope for the future; even finding long-lost family after being spotted on a random TV interview… It was hard not to be moved by his story, or at the very least beguiled by that Killer Smile.

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A thousand goodbyes later, Claire and I were swallowed up by the tentaclous (I made that word up) Seoul Subway, and blurted out at the end of the line in Songpa. Then it was into a taxi for a ramble around the streets of western Seoul. Somewhere there, in a multipurpose space under a highway flyover, were the offices of The Big Issue Korea. Sharing the single-story building were a cafe as well as a hakwon (the ubiquitous evening tutorial classroom). I’ve realised that the two are symbiotic: the Korean study culture, where school/college students finish the main part of the day then take even more classes at a hakwon, has inevitably led to an insatiable desire for caffeine. This is why anywhere in Seoul you are never more than 17 steps from a gaudy outlet serving up caffeine in many forms.
Editor Mr Lee (not to be confused with that rapscallion bus captain) and the The Big Issue Korea staff generously took time out of their schedule (next-day deadline – my timing was abominable). They were happy to share their experience of putting out what has to be the world’s best-looking Big Issue magazines under a flyover in the Wild West of Seoul.

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Once again I hope to write more soon about the exchange, but I’ll say this much: The Big Issue Korea will publish the 100th edition next January; they are not satisfied with the look of the magazine (!) claiming they want it to look more analogue (Koreans are so crafty! – a gross yet accurate generalisation); the organisation arranges ballet classes for vendors…I’ll leave you with that.

To get back, all I had to do was say ‘Gwanghwamun’! It’s a subway station close to ‘home’.

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A date with the DPRK

Three days ago, when we arrived in Seoul, bullets were exchanged at the DMZ separating North and South Korea. The word was NK soldiers had entered the four kilometre exclusion zone, so SK soldiers fired warning shots, then NK soldiers retaliated, but it did not escalate from there. Parties retreated, and ersatz peace was restored.
That was Sunday. By Wednesday all seemed rather peaceful at one of the world’s hotspots. A beautiful autumn day, the Walkley folk and Claire the exceptional translator from KPF were driven in a minibus by the charming Mr Lee out of Seoul and towards the north, for a picnic on the approach to the DMZ.

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The autumnal foliage, birdsong, picnicking kiddies and general bonhomie belied the location. But once back on the bus, things were made a little clearer… As most know the Korean War never really ended: the DMZ was formed 60 years ago on the 38th parallel to keep North from South, and the reverse.
It was a busy day at the DMZ, with 800 tourists expected, but the guide of the day, Sgt Park, organised us with equal parts diplomacy and predictable military precision. The orientation included a nifty video and a diorama of past incidents, to really bring the place to life, sort of…

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But nothing could prepare us for the eerie atmosphere at the Joint Security Area, where Korean soldiers on both sides stare each other down, as they have for decades. We were able to take photos, but there was to be no waving or other attempts to communicate with those in the North – not even a friendly cooee. We were ushered into the conference rooms and, once past the central table, we entered North Korea.
It was here I saw the world’s most well-guarded air-conditioning unit.

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Once back on the bus, and a quick visit to the gift shop (DMZ chocolate!), we ventured to other vantage points, for another look at the DPRK – past the white poles marking the border, over dripping autumn foliage, and to the NK flagpole with its 270 kilogram flag.

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We trusted our debonair driver, Mr Lee, to get us home. Although this road sign had me worried for a minute…

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Bus to Bulgogi

Huge day on the Walkley/Korea Press Foundation Roadshow. Seoul turned on the tap as far as weather was concerned, but rain did not stop play. Indeed not. The delightful Jiyoon from KPF took us on a bus odyssey over the Han River into what is now one of Asia’s most well-known neighbourhoods – Gangnam. Where we soon ended up at bus stop #1 The Korea Educational Development Institute (KEDI), for an overview of the nation’s supercharged learning culture. For KEDI, the big swing now is towards a less stressful experience for students (the pressure in SK is diabolical – exams, after-school tutoring til the wee hours). This approach is focusing on student happiness, and includes initiatives such as the Free Semester System (currently only occurring in the second grade of middle school for one semester). It’s a start.

Bus stop #2 was lunch at Omiga Restaurant. OMiGa! The banchan (side plates) that come with all Korean meals WERE the meal.

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Speaking of… bus stop #3 was the Korean Food Foundation, a government-supported body that promotes Korean Cuisine and sees food culture as part of the Hallyu (Korean Wave). And when you think that the South Korean government sees local cuisine as the next stage in cultural exports following K-pop, there may soon be much more kimchi on breakfast tables across the globe.

Bus stop #4 took the form of Naver, South Korea’s dominant web portal, located in a building that, from the outside looks like of Seoul’s imposing office towers, but inside is a southern-Cali style open-plan beanbag-strewn, plants-in-odd-places domain. With some peculiar Korean touches…

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This is the most popular search portal in SK. Yahoo could not compete with this outfit, and who could with conditions like this?

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In contrast was bus stop #5 – a company overview in very un-beanbaggy Hyundai HQ. And bus stop #6, dinner at Bulgogi Brothers Restaurant with the KPF team and local journalists. Perhaps today gave us the chance to see if we could handle a typical day for a worker/student in South Korea…I’m beat (but happy)

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Eleven Business Cards in eight: A pre-meeting meeting to outline the day’s meetings. Meetings with Members of the Korean Press Foundation (informed on the local media landscape), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (South Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau AND the Korean Peninsula Peace Regime Bureau). Afternoon tea meeting with the Australian ambassador. Post afternoon-tea meeting meeting with Australian Diplomats…. It will forevermore be known as Meeting Monday.

And then there was the Meeting with a Tray of Mushrooms

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If this is the pace of the next week it seems we are in for a Seoul-style education: where every moment can be utilised for betterment in study, business, etc. Not that I’m complaining: the opportunity to be immersed in governmental policy and the media in the world’s most logged-on lands is already fascinating barely 24 hours in. Hooray for Korea Press Foundation and The Walkley Foundation, who facilitated the visit so that we could immerse ourselves in a country that, less than 50 years ago had a GDP comparable to North Korea. Now look at the difference: basket case versus global player.
But is it a case that the energy and commitment the South Koreans threw themselves into to get the country back on its feet is now adding to social issues, such as the INTENSE study regimen schoolkids here have to go through. Might find out tomorrow when we visit the Korean Educational Development Institute. Better pack some more business cards…
Meanwhile, here’s us leaving our Meeting with the Umbrellas of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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Arrival

Air Korea is kind of natty. A sky-blue plane is a bit ‘airborne beige’. Ten hours, two films (The Trip to Italy and something with Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst). A Bit of a Sleep. Some Bibimbap (food), tea, a chocolate thing, juice, fish potato and carrots…Typical day at 30,000 feet. Then we land at Incheon – tres intergalactic.

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then down long shiny corridors past many uniforms, and out to a man with epaulets and a sign saying…

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Being met by a man with a sign, with epaulets and a bus. Heaven.

One hour of heavy traffic later and we are in the gilt-edged aforementioned Koreana., where Haejoo our glorious guide from the Korean Press Foundation – the great people who, along with the Walkley Foundation put this opportunity together – was waiting with a smattering of info and a booking at a nearby thai restaurant. Soft shell crab, garlic-and-ginger-blasted squid, and beer. Plus a crash course in language. I go to bed with vampire-dissolving breath.