Monthly Archives: October 2010

Korea’s grand prix stutters to the start

Written for Asia Times
GWANGJU – On the eve of the first Korean Grand Prix, organizers will be hoping the exhilaration of a five-way Formula 1 championship battle wrestles the spotlight from what has been a shambolic buildup.

Concerns over the readiness of the track, poor ticket sales, lack of local interest and the reluctance of local sponsors to support the event have all overshadowed the race, which was only rubber-stamped last week.

Organizers Korean Auto Valley Operation (KAVO) have admitted they have “not been well prepared” for the event, but there is some confusion as to why, particularly considering the country’shistory of hosting premier sporting events.
Despite publicly paying lip-service to the solidity of Korea’s event, F1 chief executive officer Bernie Ecclestone waited until October 12 to officially give it the green light, amid rumors that circuits in Europe were being readied to step in. The grand prix will now, it seems, go ahead, but a nervous weekend awaits both KAVO and the sport’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).
Ostensibly, the main worry has been the huge delay in completing the Korean International Circuit, located in Yeongam the southwest of the country. Designed by Herman Tilke, it is considered to be one of the most extensive and high-tech racing complexes ever built. Along with the accepted difficulties that come with undertaking such a huge project, workers had to contend with an abnormally long monsoon season, including Typhoon Kompasu, which hit the peninsula in September.
While the weather has certainly caused havoc on the region (it is also being blamed for the current “kimchi crisis”) it is doubtful that this alone could lead to the holdups. Yet it is the only concrete excuse being offered.
One alternative theory being proposed is that an attitudinal conflict exists between how Koreans engage in large-scale projects and how the West would prefer to see them completed. There’s a prevalent mantra in Korea, particularly among the older and controlling generation, stating: “If we do it, it will work.” It’s an approach that has seen them through hosting global events in the past, but not without cost.
Case in point: the Seoul Summer Olympic Games, 1988. A leading Canadian peace-time disaster planner, who worked in conjunction with the Korean government from 1985-87, admits being “appalled by the construction practices used to throw up the Olympic venues”. Despite being impressed by the speed with which the Koreans completed the venues, he warned that the poor planning processes and the general attitude of senior staff resulted in “inferior products, buildings and institutions”.
On paper, it’s certainly not a methodology that’s compatible with an increasingly safety-conscious FIA; nor is it in keeping with the prestigious image projected. The world is a much smaller place now than 22 years ago and the microscope’s focus is all the finer. While the Seoul Olympics are remembered fondly, Korea won’t escape lightly where Formula 1 is involved. Success in this one field, Asia Times Online’s source suggests, may prove elusive unless they start looking outward and embracing a more globally accepted approach.
The location of the grand prix itself has also been a bone of contention. Yeongam is a small county, some 400 kilometers from Seoul. Its province, Jeollonamdo, is the “breadbasket of Korea”, reliant on agriculture and with relatively little other industry. Construction in such a rural area brings its own logistical problems. The immediate vicinity can only accommodate 38,000. With a race capacity of 120,000, a huge percentage will need to find lodgings in nearby Mokpo or Gwangju. If the plan is to build a city around the venue rather than vice versa, then it has yet to begin materializing.
There can be no arguing, however, with the potential an annual grand prix has to invigorate Jeollonamdo, also the country’s poorest province. The deal signed with the FIA is for seven years, with the option to extend for an additional five. If all goes according to plan this weekend, KAVO and President Lee Myeong-bak’s government will have a chance to ready the infrastructure for 2011. Whether the latter will commit more fully having assessed the benefits of the first grand prix remains to be seen, with local people currently seething at what’s been perceived as “another snub for Jeollonamdo”.
An agreement to stage a grand prix in the area was first reached between KAVO, the local government and Ecclestone in 2006. Anton Scholz, founder of Korea-Consult and a key figure in the development of the race, has spoken of how it took the central government another three years to formally agree to financially support part of it. Scholz says he “even had to hold a speech in Korean senate in Seoul” and describes how at one point, he “gave a personal presentation to President Lee Myeong-bak”, before the Korea Grand Prix was acknowledged as having special significance to the country.
This alleged lack of support has only served to widen the schism between Seoul and the southwest. Moon Ho-sung, a student of Chonnam University in Gwangju, said: “Busan has many factories and Seoul has all the companies. Here we only have farmers. We are simply not valuable to the government. If Formula 1 was coming to one of the more glamorous parts of Korea, Lee Myeong-bak would have supported it straight away.”
Should Pyeongchang, in the north of the country, be successful in their bid to host the 2018 Summer Olympic Games, it is envisaged that funding be released at once, as was the case with the football World Cup in 2002. It would create a situation comparable to the one criticized in the United Kingdom press this week by Ecclestone. He accused the British government of “wasting a fortune on the Olympics which will come and go, and be forgotten in a few weeks, when they could have supported Silverstone and made sure the British Grand Prix is there forever”.
Seoul has also failed to provide significant public relations for the occasion. The grand prix has flown under the radar across the country and even locally, interest is low. There has been speculation all week as to how many tickets have been sold, with some sources estimating as little as half. Motor sport doesn’t have the foothold here that it does in many other parts of the world, despite South Korea being the fifth-largest producer of automobiles in the world. The provincial streets are devoid of “petrol-heads”, with mopeds being the vehicle of choice for young motorists.
Park Myeung-seop, a teacher from the outskirts of Gwangju, said there is no interest, simply because “Koreans find Formula One boring”. Park also condemned ticket prices, saying: “They are much too expensive for normal people in the area. If they wanted to make it an occasion for the Korean people, they should have made the prices lower. Otherwise, it is not something the people can enjoy.”
The prices dwarf even those at the established British Grand Prix at Silverstone. A three-day pass at Yeongam will cost you more than US$1,000, while the British equivalent will set you back just north of $600. While high ticket prices are certainly a deterrent, one wonders how different things would be if there was a Korean car or driver lining up on the grid?
The nation has taken to a wider interest sports in recent years with the success of figure skater Kim Yun-ah and swimmer Park Tae-hwan. The next circuits to debut, India (2011) and Russia (2014) are likely to have local competitors for the partisan crowd to roar on in the shape of the Force India team and Renault’s Russian driver Vitaly Petrov. Whilst neither nation has a glorious history in Formula 1, a local interest is a reliable way to boost the sport’s profile.
The country’s largest car manufacturer Hyundai (also comprising Kia) has as good as ruled out entering a team in the championship and have also surprisingly not taken out any sponsorship on the event, saying that their “utmost priority is to boost brand image in Europe”. It’s a bizarre turn of events, and one that has left LG as the sole local sponsor, with some of the teams carrying out promotional activity in the region themselves. Subsequently, the profile of the event has remained relatively low, with most of the press in the run up to the event being negative.
The Korean Grand Prix isn’t the first to experience teething problems. In this year’s Turkish Grand Prix, organizers had to cover the grandstands with tarpaulin to disguise the fact that there was nobody there. The Abu Dhabi and Bahrain Grand Prix have also experienced low turnouts, but they have the excuse of small populations and have the funds of oil-rich patrons at their disposal. Many fans have pointed at Ecclestone, accusing him of chasing the money, ignoring true followers of the sport and spreading the F1 brand globally, but only in the geographical sense of the word.
For Korea, all will not be lost if KAVO and the government treat this year’s disastrous run-up as a steep learning curve. The promise of at least another six grand prix could reap dividend, should the glaring deficiencies be addressed and in that respect, the rhetoric from KAVO’s camp is positive. Kang Hyo-seok, director of the province’s F1 Support stated: “We don’t expect early returns, as this project needs long-term investment to turn this area into a regional leisure and tourism hub”.
A study into Formula 1 in Australia by Flinders University, Adelaide, estimated a profit of A$1 billion (US$944 million) could be recouped over 10 years. Alongside direct economic impact, there is huge benefit to be gained from employment, tourism and infrastructure. But if the Korean Grand Prix is to have realistic designs on success, organizers need to be sure they can steer, before they put the foot down.
Finbarr Bermingham is an independent journalist from Northern Ireland, living and working in Gwangju, South Korea.

Daejeon Rock Festival


A day that was filled with promise turned into a case of what might have been. The first annual Daejeon Rock Festival guaranteed good music, world food and international beer. It barely delivered on any of the fronts. The festival was stopped at around 11pm (having been billed until 5am) due to complaints over noise pollution. The food fair was shoddily put together: three hundred advertised vendors shrunk drastically to about a dozen overpriced and confused (samosas come from Mexico? And is spaghetti a national dish of Spain?) fast-food retailers and the international beer and wine promised manifested itself as a shed-load of Cass. The sizeable Gwangju contingent that made the trip was certainly under-whelmed.

Nonetheless, it was beautiful to be able to bask in the last rays of sunlight before the onset of winter in the pleasant setting of the Daejeon Convention Centre. What survived of the music was a mixed bag, but for the most part enjoyable. One serious gripe, however, is that there were few announcements or little information on big screens to differentiate one band from the next. The whole thing had an amateurish feel about it… a shame, really, given the picturesque surroundings. The stage was thrust in amongst the apartment blocks and as the sunset, the backdrop was stunning. Hundreds of lanterns were raised to the sky and everybody was gearing up for a long night of music.

The first band was a shock to the system, proving that Screamcore is alive and well in Korea. Babies were wheeled bawling from the arena, locals wore concerned looks upon their faces and a general air of confusion reigned momentarily. They made way for an altogether more pleasing proposition, in ex-pats Dirty Gangneung. Rootsy, Black Keys style riffs were met by a tunefully wailing lead singer to wash the aural ruin of Act One from our ears. A crowd surfer and a spectacular firework display ensured that the visuals matched the audio, and the evening was ushered in, in fine style.

The third band to take the stage, Kickscotch, was arguably the most impressive. A female fronted quartet, they continued the brash rockiness of the precursors. The lead singer was reminiscent of PJ Harvey, head swirling and playing a flying V that completely dwarfed her. The music itself was more like an R-rated B-52s: call and response vocals, delivered over muscular riffs.

Kickscotch were followed on by the Seoul City Suicides, another riff heavy three-piece recalling Austin, Texas garage rockers White Denim. It was an enthusiastic, impressive set, but perhaps not as well-received as that of the ensuing act, Whatever That Means. Ignore the name; it wasn’t too hard to work out what was behind their music. They sounded like the fallout from Green Day’s Dookiepersonified and thrust onto a far-eastern stage. It was some tuneful refreshment to the heavy rock of the previous few bands and provided one of the highlights of the sadly curtailed evening.

A largely forgettable EMO ensemble were next up, followed by the strangely monikered, Skasucks. Apparently there is a healthy ska scene in Korea, and despite the irony of their name, they are surely one of the forerunners. They inspired moonstomping aplenty and by the end of their set, had filled the stage with crowd members hell-bent on replicating some of the Specials’ most video-friendly moments.

Shortly after, we realized there wouldn’t be anymore music. What was supposed to have gone on for eleven hours, lasted for around half that. Organizers had seemingly not fully considered the setting of the venue, in the midst of some large apartment buildings. Complaints over noise pollution resulted in the plug being pulled on an eventful, yet anti-climactic day in Daejeon.



The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I don’t do many book reviews on this blog, but when I finished The Road the other day, I felt compelled to write something about it. In any case, I don’t consider this to be a review. There are already hundreds of those online. The book was a runaway success and most of you will probably have seen the recent movie adaptation (I haven’t). No, these are more the thoughts seeping from my freshly blown mind. This book is stunning; probably the best I’ve read of McCarthy’s and certainly the most thought provoking.
What I enjoyed most about his writing in All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men, is how much he makes from so little and how he makes that little work for him. He takes this to the next level here. When I was in journalism college, my lecturer constantly told me that every word has to earn its place on the page. I’ve yet to encounter an author that practices this as brilliantly as McCarthy. In the post-apocalyptic American setting of The Road, he squeezes so much from the bleakness of the landscape. He conjures up the most barren of imagery: dark and lonely, all the while being uber-economical with his language. In his previous books (particularly the Border Trilogy), he used this to positive effect. I wanted to experience the spaciousness and under-the-stars beauty of Southern America and Mexico. This time, he’s turned it on its head.
I love how McCarthy gradually feeds us lines of information… drip, drip and then suddenly, bang! He mentions nothing about how the earth found itself in this situation. He occasionally alludes to the past, but mostly in the form of memory. There is little historical information. It makes it all the more striking when he says, kind of in passing, that cows are extinct. Or when the boy is asks his father whether crows could fly high enough to see the sun, should they still exist. All the time, the reader is left to wonder what catastrophe could have befallen the planet, but such is McCarthy’s deftness of language, it never distracts from the actually story.
This, incidentally, focuses on the relationship between father and son in the most desperate of situations. They are traveling south… but why? To escape the cold? But what will they do when they get there? What hope do they have? They have no hope. They have nothing. Each is kept alive by the desire to maintain the other. At times, their plight is truly heartbreaking. Here is a little boy who has never had a friend. He doesn’t care if he dies or not, anesthetized as he is to human demise. McCarthy attempts to show just how inter-dependent father and son are on one another. The son will do anything the father says. He accepts anything he is told. The father does everything in his power to keep his son alive, despite the knowledge that they would both be better off dead.
No part of the book brings this home more forcefully than after a time they are confronted by one of the nomadic bands of cannibals. The father washes his son’s hair in a river, telling himself that he must wash the murderous brains he’s just blown from their assailant’s head from his son because that is his job. He is the boy’s father and he must try to keep his hair clean. Simple, yet devastatingly effective and it sums up what, for me, is the meaning of The Road. Even in the most horrifying circumstances, parents are driven by an unbreakable bond at childbirth, the evolutionary desire to keep their offspring.
I had a conversation with a friend the other day about modern literature. We were wondering which contemporary writers would be viewed as “classic authors” one hundred years from now. Which authors will be studied by sixteen year old high school students? We both immediately suggested McCarthy. His books are the most wonderfully analogous I recall from modern literature. We can all learn a lot from them and particularly, The Road.

Gwangju Blog

I’ve been asked to write for a local publication in Gwangju, the Gwangju Blog. It’s a regular gig, I’ll be writing four articles per month about sport in the area. I’ll post them on this blog too… partly out of convenience for future collation, but also, because maybe some people at home might be interested in reading them.
You can read Gwangju Blog here:
It contains updates, reports, directives and guides and is very useful for people in the area.

Gwangju Sangmu 1 – 1 Suwon Bluewings

Written for Gwangju Blog

The World Cup Stadium in Gwangju isn’t full at the best of times, so you can almost understand the paucity of supporters for Gwangju Sangmu’s K-League game on Sunday against Suwon Bluewings. After all, before kick-off, Sangmu were lying second from bottom. They’d scored thirteen goals in twenty games and recorded a paltry 3 victories. Talk of a citizen team to replace the current military set-up will no doubt be welcomed, but for now, we must make do with the soldiers! But that’s not to say a trip to watch them in action isn’t worthwhile. For fans of “the beautiful game” in Gwangju, it’s a chance to see professional soccer at a decent level. For those yet to awaken to its splendor, it’s a nice day out, in comfortable surroundings.

Suwon arrived at the Guus Hiddink Stadium as strong favorites, seven places ahead of Sangmu in the league table and one of the traditional powerhouses of Korean soccer, having won the K-League four times and the Asian Champions League twice. The difference between the two sets of supporters was marked: the Suwon followers cheered as only those who have tasted success can, consistent and choreographed. In contrast, the Gwangju support was tame and non-expectant, although one section of the crowd was impressively vocal. However, the cagy way in which the visitors started Sunday’s game was no indication as to a bridge in quality. Indeed, Gwangju’s stifling tactics proved to be more than a match for Suwon for much of the first half.

The play was scrappy. Any form of attack was strictly of the Route One variety, over the top. But just when it looked as though the spoils were to be shared at half time, Hong Soon-Hak broke free of his marker and was fouled in the area, with Gwangju conceding a penalty in the forty third minute. Japanese international and former Boca Juniors and Eintracht Frankfurt striker Naohiro Takahara stepped up and made no mistake from twelve yards

With the deadlock broken, both teams emerged for the second period a little more adventurously. Gwangju’s captain Choi Sung-Kuk went close with a volley from just outside the box, which was a harbinger for more involvement in the game from the influential forward. Suwon pushed on looking for a second, leaving gaps at the back, gaps the Sangmu forward line failed to capitalize on until late on. Gwangju’s Korean World Cup star, Kim Jung-Woo had a quiet game, but it was his mazy run past a couple of Bluewings defenders that led to the equalizer, after he was felled in the area.

The referee didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot, and up stepped that man Choi again to fire past the keeper, high into the roof of the net. It was a goal Gwangju’s second half performance arguably deserved, but the military team could have snatched the victory as the game crept towards stoppage time. Choi again made space for himself in the Suwon penalty area, but was closed down just as he was about to pull the trigger. A powerful header drew a great save from Kang-Jin Ha in the visitors’ goal, but they held on for a point.

A point, though, is of little use to Gwangju. They are still hovering a single place from the foot of the table in what has been a disappointing season. Here is hoping the talk of a citizen team comes to fruition. This city deserves a quality, committed soccer team.

My Radio Debut

This week I am appearing on the Pete Ross M-Town show, on GFN-FM 98.7. You can listen online at I’ll be talking about viral videos, chatting with Pete about the top 5 of the week. These are the videos you see everywhere online. Facebook, Twitter, in your inbox. They range from the sublime, to the ridiculous, to the downright nauseating. And then, of course, you have your cute animals.
Hopefully this will turn into a regular slot and I’ll post the videos on the blog. The show airs from 2000-2200 Korean time, about 1200-1300 GMT. I’ve never done radio before, but have always been keen on it. Nonetheless, recording today was a bit nerve-wracking… I had to simultaneously think about what I was saying (something I’m not used to) and keep my accent under control – many people here have difficulty understanding what I’m saying, and that’s just the Americans.
I’ve been told I’ll grow into it.
Here’s hoping.
Oh, and if anyone’s seen any good videos, be sure to let me know.