Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Marching upstream

According to his inaugural speech, South Korea's new President Lee Myung-bak, is intending to move the country into an 'age of pragmatism'. However, Lee has come under fire for several high-profile schemes which seem anything but pragmatic, and could be described as either bold and visionary or attention-grabbing and over ambitious. One of the most controversial of these plans is the intended construction of a Grand Korean Waterway, a large canal running the length of the peninsula.

Lee Myung-bak was the CEO of Hyundai Construction, and oversaw the huge growth of the company as Korea lurched into industrialisation and prosperity in the 70s and 80s. He was known as 'The Bulldozer', embodying the spirit that prioritised speedy industrial development over all other concerns, especially environmental ones.

After leaving Hyundai for a political career, Lee appeared to have left behind this single-minded focus on industrial growth. In 2002, he ran for mayor of Seoul on a largely environmental ticket, pledging to clean up the notoriously polluted city. During Lee's 3 year tenure, the Green Seoul Project was launched, which succeeded in removing a notorious raised highway, overhauling the city's public transport network, and regenerating public spaces throughout the city.

One of Lee's most celebrated achievements in Seoul was the transformation of a pollution-clogged watercourse into the sparkling Cheonggyecheon Plaza, a narrow but attractive concourse just off Sejongno, one of central Seoul's main, multi-lane drags. The centrepiece of the plaza is the now clean and sinuously sculpted Cheonggye Stream, flanked by split-level walkways, crossed by traditionally-styled bridges and surrounded by colourful sculptures.

Cheonggyecheon Plaza was the oddly fitting starting point for a demonstration against the Grand Korean Waterway plans. Environmental groups have been concerned about the scheme since it was announced as one of Lee's Grand National Party election pledges. The main thrust of their opposition is that the construction of the canal will cause major environmental upheaval in sensitive areas for very little economical benefit. In addition, there is a worry that the project could threaten drinking water supplies, which are already scarce, and increase the risk of flooding during the summer monsoon season.

The canal, with a planned route from Seoul to Busan in the South East, and a secondary link to Mokpo in the South West, is primarily intended for the
freight usage. According to the government, the waterway will decrease transport costs, reduce the burden on overcrowded roads and cut down emissions. Countering these claims, the opposition alleges that the canal will only really benefit the construction companies, and insist that there is little justification for building a large-scale canal in small country surrounded by sea.

With Lee
Lee Myung Bak links to the construction industry, it is not hard to suspect a hint of Halliburton-style conspiracy in the scheme, although the president claims that no public money will be used in the canal's construction. Instead, the costs will be offset by exporting the raw materials displaced by the excavation process, and the increased tourism that the waterway could result in.

Whatever the truth of any of these claims, the Grand Waterway plan has certainly sparked a fair amount of impassioned debate, and I was intrigued to see how the march would reflect this. I'm pleased to say that the event was a peaceful, positive affair, with an inclusive atmosphere created by colourful costumes and the presence of young families alongside beret-sporting students, Buddhist monks and serious green campaigners.

A small group of seemingly quite militant anti-Lee Myung Bak protesters in black trench coats threatened to hijack the march for their own ends, but merely ended up looking dour and irrelevant next to kids in pink fish heads and men in bear suits. Not that there weren't serious points being made (thankfully I got an occasional translation of the main speeches), but the overriding sense of fun and celebration seemed fitting, especially in the brilliant winter sun.

Though the turnout was not particularly impressive (around 200 people at my rough estimate), the warm reception received by the impassioned speakers and the diverse crowd made the demonstration feel like a hopeful rallying cry. I'll certainly be following the progress of the waterway scheme (with some dread, but trying to stay open-minded) and will hopefully be able to take part in further green gatherings.

South Korea is in no way unique in seeing environmental concerns shunted aside in the name of progress, but the country does seem to have several potential advantages in reaching some kind of compromise. For one thing, it is very hard to get away from the presence of the landscape, even in the middle of busy cities, thanks to the ubiquitous mountain backdrop. The idea of man being somehow separate from nature has never seemed so arbitrary to me as in central Seoul, looking past gleaming glass buildings to the craggy peaks just beyond the city.

This interconnectedness, which I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling, should be a very good starting point for environmental innovation, and the development of a shared sense of responsibility for the country and wider world. As I've mentioned before, one of the founding principals of Changwon is to balance nature and technological progress, which does seem to have been at least partially achieved. Whether this ambition has much currency throughout South Korea, or with its new leaders, is another matter, of course.

Photo album:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Morning calm and mountain air in Gyeongju

With three days leave for the lunar new year (Seollal), I took my colleagues' advice and travelled to Gyeongju, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Korea. The city is a few hours' bus ride from Changwon, and famed for its wealth of ancient artefacts - perfect for an introduction to Korean history.

The valley that Gyeongju sits in was the centre of power for the Silla Kingdom, a major player in the Three Kingdoms era (57 BC - AD 668). Silla became increasingly powerful throughout this period, eventually defeating the opposing kingdoms (Baekje and Goguryeo), repelling a Chinese invasion and uniting the Korean peninsula for the first time. The kingdom also became increasingly opulent, leaving a stunning legacy of Buddhist temples, pagodas and shrines throughout the valley.

The city itself is a ramshackle mixture of gaudy motels, sketchy-looking hostels and narrow shopping streets, which has seemingly grown up quite organically around the ancient burial mounds that are scattered throughout the area. These mounds (neung) are the tombs of Silla royalty, and though they are often quite large, they seem designed to be relatively humble, understated reminders of the rich and powerful. The simple, rounded shapes of the mounds chime with the country's landscape, and walking in the neatly manicured Tombs Park near the city centre feels a little like stepping through a miniaturised version of Korea.

It may seem a little morbid to have such visible symbols of death in a modern city, but instead there's something strangely compelling and uplifting about the burial mounds. Made of heaped stones and earth over timber frames, and covered in grass and occasionally trees, they provide a very tangible link to Buddhist traditions of harmony between man and the 'natural' world.

A short bus ride past the rice fields surrounding Gyeongju and a modern lakeside resort leads to the entrance to Bulguk-sa, the 'Temple of the Buddha-land'. The temple is Gyeongju's biggest tourist draw, originally built in the 6th century, extended throughout the Silla period and now a beautifully preserved working monastery.

Surrounded by pine-covered slopes and immaculate, serene grounds (and rather large construction site, but we'll ignore that in a zen kinda way), Bulguk-sa is the epitome of peaceful, elegant retreat, without being austere or stifling. Airy courtyards contain prayer halls with gently curving roofs and delicate columns, giving them a sense of lightness and upwards momentum. Colourful decorative splashes and playful architectural details add to the feeling of celebration and openness, encouraging contemplation in a gentle, affable manner, even on a bitingly cold winter day.

The mountains around the valley are littered with other temples, pagodas and shrines from the Silla period, as well as more burial mounds. An afternoon spent scrambling around the slopes of Namsan (South Mountain) gave me a few bruises and a childish (and completely false) sense of discovering lost relics. With few other hikers in sight, it was easy to indulge in a little archaeological wish-fulfilment, although the abundance of scattered tangerine peel and carefully placed rope handrails did undermine the illusion a little.

Other highlights around Gyeongju include the shrine of Seokguram, which sits at the top of a surprisingly arduous trail from Bulguk-sa. At the path's end are some stunning views, and small grotto housing a wonderfully preserved stone Buddha - well worth the trek, even though the Buddha image itself is understandably protected by a sheet of glass.

Another must is the beautifully presented Gyeongju National Museum, which gives a great overview of the area. The galleries feature some very accessible insights into the distinctive architecture of the Silla period, and a nicely balanced selection of bronze age and Silla relics - intricately crafted Buddha statuettes, bells and other treasures, as well as everyday objects. My favourite of the latter was a twelve-sided dice used for ancient drinking games, featuring instructions such as 'never abandon your unpleasant partner', 'let them strike you on the nose', 'dance silently' as well as the more generic 'drink and sing'.

The villages and mountains around Gyeongju are saturated with many more enticing relics and hiking trails, as well as a 'special vegetarian village', which sounds particularly appealing to me. Hopefully I'll be able to sample some of these on return visits to the area, but my short trip was a great taster for Korea's historical riches, and an inspiring way to start the year of the rat.

Photo albums:
Bulguk-sa and Seokguram