Category Archives: korea

Falling On Deaf Ears: The Curious Case of Popular Music in Korea

A grievance for many foreigners living in Korea is the perceived lack of variety. The food, whilst excellent, is typically built around the same staple ingredients. Anyone arriving here expecting a local beer to rival those of Eastern neighbours Thailand, China, Japan and India will be bitterly disappointed. The choice is small; the taste of each is poor. It’s visible in the schools, where the kids are forced to wear regulation haircuts; in the streets, where young lovers parade dressed in couple sets’ matching outfits; and in the workplace, where signs of individuality are often greeted with suspicion.

Where I noticed this most, though, is in the music. Having conducted a little research before I came here, my expectations weren’t very high. I understood that mainstream Korean music was similar to Japanese: sickly sweet and nauseatingly choreographed. However, whereas Japan is famous for its niche markets, its fascination with bizarre elements of Western culture and its resultant spawning of independent scenes rivaling those of the West for fervour and devotion, a parallel seems lacking in much of Korea.

I underestimated the reach of the mainstream pop music scene in Korea. As a well-developed, industrialized country, a functioning democracy and the fastest internet connection in the world, the seeds of variety, the key ingredients of lifestyle choice and the means with which to pursue them are all present. In my own experiences, there just isn’t the appetite. No matter where you go in the city I live in, Gwangju, it’s wall to wall K-Pop. In the bars, clubs, restaurants and even on the street. There are megaphones affixed to the sides of buildings churning it out, relentlessly. It’s inescapable. It also seems to be embraced by people from every demographic: old and young, rich and poor. If you see an impromptu K-pop performance or dance routine on the street (as you often do), the audience will be a hodgepodge of middle-aged women and middle-school kids, all clapping along blissfully. If there is an underground scene, it’s so far subterranean, you may need to enlist ultrasonics to locate it.

Seoul, I’m certain, would offer a vast improvement in terms of diversity. It is a cosmopolitan mega-city, home to more than 20 million people. When touring acts do decide to make the journey to South Korea, they generally play a show in Seoul and sometimes Daegu and Busan. Friends in Seoul have spoken briefly of counter-culture, but it’s not an area I’m well-versed in. Gwangju, though, is hardly a rural backwater. With a population of 1.5million, it has almost the same amount of people as my home country, Northern Ireland. We may get the odd ex-pat band playing in a local foreign owned bar. There is the occasional indie gig, sponsored by the radio station. But amongst the Koreans I encounter regularly, there is little interest in an alternative to K-pop.

Girls Generation – Chocolate Love

So what music is popular in Korea?

K-pop is an intensely saccharine version of the music congesting the charts in the UK at the moment (from what I can tell). There are electronic, hip-hop and R&B elements or strands to it, but truth be told, each sub genre varies very little from the other. When I went home at Christmas, I briefly tuned into Radio One and was shocked to hear the amount if Auto Tune and vocador used to distort the singers voice. That has a presence in Korea, too.

The pop music here, though, strikes me as being very basic. Although a charge angled at lots of ‘fads’, it is bereft of depth, instantly forgettable and awfully annoying. It is childlike in its composition, often featuring insanely high-pitched vocals or faux-macho rap interludes. Some pieces remind me of an even less palatable Black Eyed Peas. Where we differ here, though, is that the format of the music reminds me of the boy/girl group boom in the West circa mid-1990s.

As anyone who has spent time in a Korean classroom will testify, boys and girls don’t mix very well. This may explain the saturation of single-sex pop acts dominating the airwaves. The most popular girl groups are probably The Wonder Girls (who became the first Korean ‘artist’ to break into the Billboard 100 in 2009) and Girls Generation: gaggles of insanely pretty, scantily clad pixies with barely a note in their collective heads. Of the boy groups, I could rhyme off any number of acts, but the ones I hear most often are B2ST (Beast, clever). Shinee, BIGBANG, 2AM, 21 and CN Blue. To their credit, CN Blue actually play instruments. They’re akin to McFly doused in Kool Aid and incarcerated in a music box. The boys are all handsome, clean-cut and fresh-faced with a prepubescent innocence that seeps out from their music videos.

B2St – Breathe

The Pop Idol format is kingpin in Korea, too. Many of the acts mentioned above came through the ranks of one of the local versions. No problem there… I recall just before Christmas my Facebook and Twitter feeds were inundated with X-Factor inspired comments. But there doesn’t seem to be any cynicism towards programs like these, or the superstars they spawn. Cynicism within a culture helps to engender an alternative, but people in Korea lap up the produce unquestioningly. When I have called this to various Korean people they have turned it back on me: “why would we?” Most people seem to be content with being spoonfed: it saves them the bother of developing a taste of their own.

Why doesn’t there seem to be any musical diversity in Korea?

The notion of adolescent peers frowning on individuality is not a new thing. It was present when I was growing up and I’m sure it will be when my grandchildren are. But in the wider spectrum (and certainly more-so in theory than in practice), the Western ideal is said to prize individualism. This is not the case in Korea. Groupthink is rife to an extraordinary level amongst people, particularly the young. Opinions are formed without questioning the reason: logic is often lost.

There is intemperate jingoism and fervent nationalism. Interview a cross section of people on any number of topics (current President Lee Myung Bak, mad cow disease, Japan, for example) and you will get 99% of the same vitriolic response. Ask them to back it up with reasoning, some will struggle. So whilst Korea is eager to embrace elements of modern culture, it could be argued that they don’t have the confidence to go the whole nine yards… independent thought isn’t a priority.

(I would like to point out here that I am in no way actively encouraging and hoping that Korea pursues “Western ideals”. I am a staunch critic of standardization and it sores me to see Starbucks’ popping up on corners here. I do not consider independent thought to be a Western virtue: more something that’s essential and present in a fully functional society.)

You can see it in the classroom, where students are encouraged to stifle their eccentricities. Hair, long considered the emblem of teenage rebellion, must be regulation length and colour. The learning-by-repetition models adopted in many classrooms are a few steps away from the “hundred and twenty times three times a week for thirty months” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There is such an emphasis on achievement here, creativity falls by the wayside and with it, the desire or ability to form musical taste. Children are not championed for their flair or uniqueness here, but for their productivity and aptitude to study.

The prizes are so great. Failure is not an option (explaining the ridiculously high suicide rate). Humiliation equals death. Face and honour are the most valuable things in Korean society and as such, the system of learning is geared to build an army of obedient, successful robots. The emphasis on education is stifling, so if a kid takes his eye off the ball for a split second, he’s left in the dirt. From middle school, students attend up to seven extra academies after they finish their formal education. After completing their homework, some finally get to bed in the wee hours of the morning, before rising at the crack of dawn to begin all over again. One of my students was operating at four hours sleep per night, six nights a week. He is fourteen. When he goes to high school, he tells me his school hours will be from 7am-11pm. Where is the opportunity for these kids to develop a taste in music? So whilst we spent our teenage years holed up in our bedrooms taking our first steps in a sonic journey that will last a lifetime, Korean kids have to make do with what’s rammed down their throats: without the onus or will to question it.

Another obsession of the Korean people is image. Plastic surgery is common; particularly double eyelid surgery amongst women, where they try to make their eyes look more Western. Without so much time to devote to actually listening to music or watching movies, it’s important to them that their stars are all beautiful. Ask anyone why he or she likes a particularly movie star or singer and they are probably more likely to say “pretty” or “handsome” than, “they sing well”. In this area, ability is secondary. People are slaves to image and it’s certain that this has an effect on what they are listening to.

The most popular hobby in Korea, gaming, is so socially obtrusive that I would argue it too is a factor in the suppression of the music scene. When they do have some free time, a huge percentage of young people (and not so young) spend it in the PC Room. Combined with the countless hours of study, a large amount of time in here is a huge hindrance to the social skills of kids. Many lack confidence, are inordinately shy or simply don’t like interacting with other people. Again, any inkling they may have had to involve themselves in an alternative scene is effectively corroded. It seeps into their ambition, their fashion and of course, their music. With competition like this, credible musicians stand little chance.

I hope none of what I’ve written is offensive to Koreans reading this. Whilst I have spoken generally, I have done based on what I see before me daily. I hope that readers will highlight any erroneous statements, and counter my views with their alternatives. The music here has been one of the only frustrations I’ve experienced and something I’ve thought about a lot. I would be very interested to hear what other people’s take on this issue is… please feel free to comment below.

Koreanosaurus Boseongensis

I recently had an article about dinosaurs published on the front cover of the Gwangju News. I’ve spent a little time trying to extract the pages, create new PDFs and upload the article in its original form but haven’t been able to do so. Since it was proving to be such a ballache, here is the article in text only format. I found researching and writing this piece very enjoyable and hope you will too. I’ve been making a conscious effort to write outside my comfort zone and hopefully it’ll pay off…

Me with Professors Huh and Shin

Korea is a country fixated on technology. Time Magazine recently named the English teaching robot as one of the best inventions of 2010. They have the fastest broadband connection in the world and what was until recently the fastest railway system. You could easily be forgiven for assuming that all Koreans were hurtling towards the future at breakneck speed. But in a quiet corner of Gwangju, there is vital work ongoing that’s establishing and defining the peninsula’s unbreakable bond with the past.

The official approval of Koreanosaurus Boseongensis as a new genus and species in October locked the eyes of the scientific world onto the Korea Dinosaur Research Center at Chonnam University. But in truth, it’s just the latest in a long line of remarkable discoveries by Professor Min Huh and his team of researchers.  Korea has proven to be one of the most fertile hunting grounds for excavation teams: now the aptly named Koreanosaurus can take pride of place as the jewel in the crown.

The fossilized remains were discovered in Bibong-ri Boseong, Jeollanam-do (a town more noted for its luscious green tea plantations) in 2003 by Professor Huh’s team. After seven years of excavation, preparation, research and reconstruction, they were finally given the green light to go public with their findings just a few weeks ago. Professor Huh admits it’s been a “very exciting and busy time.”

He is Korea’s top dinosaur expert, respected the world over for his discoveries. He is also the Dean of the Natural Sciences Department of Chonnam. But sitting in his research facility, tucked away at the back of the university, he is amicable and accessible. He manages to simplify everything: offering bite-sized pieces of information, easily digested by those without a background in geology.  He explains about how 100 million years ago, there was only one, super continent. Thus, Korea was connected to China and Mongolia, two other areas rich in dinosaur fossils.

The conditions in Korea were perfect for attracting prehistoric wildlife, in all shapes and sizes. Large parts of what is now Jeollanam-do were lakes; which explains the huge collection of dinosaur footprints, eggs and bone fossils in the area. The county provided some much needed watering holes. The extent of Professor Huh’s findings in the region shouldn’t be understated. He recalls his first fruitful excavation, in Haenam in 1996.

“I didn’t know anything about large dinosaur footprints at the time,” he explains. “I found one, about ten centimeters wide, it looked like the roots of a plant, embedded in sedimentary rock bedding. We kept looking and found more and more. I contacted Professor Martin Lockley, an expert in Colorado University and told him about the find. He was shocked and said only: ‘how many?’”

In total, they found 823 dinosaur and 443 pterosaur footprints Haenam. It is the largest pterosaur (the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight. The most famous pterosaur is the pterodactyl) print site in the world. They also found the world’s oldest webbed bird footprint, dating back 85 million years. In fact, Haenam is unique in being the only site in the world where footprints of dinosaurs, pterosaurs, birds and arthropods (ancient arachnids, crustaceans and insects) have been found in the same locale.

Professor Huh’s next excavation brought him to Hwasun, where he explained that to date his team have uncovered more than 1,800 wide-ranging dinosaur footprints, as well as a trackway which exhibits the fastest speed of any dinosaur in Korea. In Yeosu, they found the world’s longest ornithopod (small, bipedal plant-eating dinosaurs, often birdlike) trackway in the world, amongst 3,853 other footprints.

Goseong, further down the coast towards Busan, has also proven to be a fruitful location for

Professor Huh. In times gone by, Korea’s second city was nothing but water: a huge lake, comparable in size to Lake Superior. As such, it too proved a popular habitat for dinosaurs and has the world’s highest density of dinosaur footprints, with over 5,000 being located, across many different species.

But it was in Boseong that Professor Huh’s remarkable and ultimate achievement was to be unveiled. Unsurprisingly, he beams as he proudly shows me the remains of a skeleton. Koreanosaurus Boseongensis is smaller than you might think. “Jurassic Park was just a movie,” the Professor explains, smiling. “It really wasn’t historically accurate.” The team, too, were initially surprised by the finding. Most of the footprints in the area are indicative of much larger creatures: they were puzzled by the remains.

The Korean team’s expertise is mostly in footprints. They enlisted Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist from Belgium to confirm that the Koreanosaurus is, indeed, unique to Korea only. It is assumed that it moved primarily on all fours, because of its overall body-plan and the location of the discovery. This, in itself, is an uncommon feature.

Professor Huh continues: “We think it was capable of digging, because of the position of its arms. This would have helped it to find shelter and digging holes with which to lay eggs and raise its young. It was an ornithopod with long legs and neck, but with shorter hindlegs. We believe it moved quite slowly.”

The Professor explained that Koreanosaurus was about a metre tall, and 2.5 long. It weighed about one hundred kilograms and lived in the late Cretaceous period (99.6 million to 65.5 million years ago). The discovery is his most exciting yet, he admits, but there is much work to be done. The next task to hand is to examine and try to establish links between bones and eggs found in the area. Watching the research student buzz round the lab, it’s easy to see that they won’t stop until they have answers.

As Professor Huh places a one hundred million year old bone in my hand, I can’t help but reflect on the minor role in world history human beings have played. We have roamed the earth, in our current form, for a mere two hundred thousand years. Dinosaurs ruled the domain for over three hundred million. The dinosaurs of Korea were wiped out by a series of comets and volcanoes (which resulted in the formation of amongst others, Mudeung Mountain). We may just be doing similarly devastating damage; all within the blink of an eye that has been our lifespan.

The Calm at the Eye of the Storm: South Korean Kids on the Threat of North Korea

Korean School Kids: Oblivious

The news networks have gone into overdrive this week. The Korean Peninsula has once again come into focus for all the wrong reasons. By attacking the populated island of Yeonpyeong and killing four South Koreans, the North have made it clear that the accession of Kim Jong-un to Head of State will not signal an end to provocative, audacious behaviour.

It has been widely reported that the North have strengthened their nuclear position with the recent confirmation of uranium enrichment. The American scientist who visited the facility, however, has since warned against unnerving hysteria. Conservative commentators, too, have spoken out against sensationalizing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Isn’t that exactly what they want?

All the same, it’s brinkmanship that would test the mettle of many. For me, though, it’s served as a poignant reminder of how people live during times of ‘crisis’. It’s also highlighted the remarkable will that exists within humans to continue on with their lives, even when the world around them goes to pieces. Children, in particular, show impressive indifference in the face of adversity.

I’ve spent the past six months teaching in South Korea. I work in an academy in Gwangju, in the south west of the country. Whilst the international media has been reporting on the mood in Seoul, I have spent the past two days gauging opinion amongst the middle school teenagers I teach. The first thing I noticed is that not one child raised the issue of the North Korean attack when I inquired as to how they were, or how their day had been. The general reaction, when I raised the point, equated to: “oh, that!”

Further questioning revealed a mixture of disdain, sympathy, reactionary, half-hearted hatred and bemusement. But very few of the opinions were enforced with anything resembling conviction… more like eye rolling and heavy tutting.  There was little in the way of childish zeal; the sort one might expect if, say, America had been attacked by an enemy. Of course, I wasn’t grilling 11-year-olds for their opinions on the Korean Situation… I reserved it for the older kids. I wonder if I’d have encountered slightly more animation with the youngsters?

There seems to be a level of acceptance here that these things will, on occasion, happen. It’s apparent even whilst watching news broadcasts: compare those of CNN yesterday with Korean networks. Of course, this is huge news, but it seems as though folks aren’t as willing to get carried away. The calmness struck me as odd at first, but very quickly, I realized it was a sentiment I was well familiar with.


Yeonpyeong's Burning: Image by

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s in Northern Ireland: surrounded by The Troubles. It seemed like everyday someone had been shot dead; or a bomb had exploded somewhere. Sometimes when we’d be walking to or from school, we’d be greeted on the road by British soldiers, heavily armed. The town I lived in was often closed off because of bomb scares… occasionally, bombs. I was evacuated from a cinema in 1998 whilst playing pool. About an hour later, a huge fireball came rushing towards us at the top of the hill. The bomb had exploded. It probably never came anywhere near us, but it felt like it was right on my arse!

I had a laugh about the incident in school on Monday with friends. Nobody was shocked or surprised… these kind of things just happened. I only realized things like this weren’t normal when I left Ireland for the first time (also in 1998) and went to America. People would ask me how it was, living in Northern Ireland, as if it was a war-zone. I laughed at the very thought… “sure, it’s normal!” Would be the reply. And to me, it was.

‘Normal’ is whatever moment of history we are born into. This week I’ve had messages and emails from home asking me about the situation here.

“What’s going on?”

“It sounds terrible!”

“Is there going to be a war?”

“You’ll be on the first plane home!”

Probably the exact worries people had about our own circumstance in Northern Ireland ten or fifteen years ago. Without trying to make little of what is undoubtedly an anxious, lamentable time, Kim Jong-il was pulling stunts like this when my students were born. As shocking as it may be, for most of them, it’s unsurprising. One of the foibles of conflict still rings true today: the kids are alright.


Now, enjoy this short audio clip of Sarah Palin promising support for our “North Korean allies” on Glenn Beck’s radio show.

Take a trip to the DMZ


Everybody comes to Korea with a list of things they want to do, see and accomplish as long as their arm. Taking in Asia seems to crop up on most of them, along with learning the language, taking up Taekwondo and, of course, saving money. But anybody with of a passing interest in history (or a slight penchant for voyeurism) is guaranteed to make a trip to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South. That it featured so highly on my own list is slightly worrying, but I’m happy to have checked it off and in the process of doing so, I had one of the most sobering, surreal experiences of my life.


There are various trips to choose from, each with their own selling points and packages. I was sold on Adventure Korea’s promise to take me off the beaten track. Rolling through the deserted countryside beyond the civilian control point that precedes the DMZ, I felt reassured that they had kept their side of the bargain, but a slight unease at the eeriness of the surroundings.

The once bustling metropolis of Cheorwan has long since been reduced to a ghost town. Stray machinery peppers the endless rows of rice paddies, conceivably abandoned at the outbreak of war, but more probably by the farmers who must leave the zone before their curfew. It amounts to a whole lot of suspense before we reach the first point of the tour, the Second Tunnel.

One hundred and forty five metres deep and 3.5 kilometres long, the tunnel was intercepted 1.1 kilometres in to South Korean territory in 1975 and had the power to transport 16,000 soldiers an hour under the border. The figure beggars belief. I have to crouch as I make my way down to its base, wondering how long it would’ve taken to carve this into the rock. The guide reveals, to gasps of astonishment, that there is an estimated twenty other tunnels like this yet to be unearthed, but that despite the recent decline in relations, they don’t anticipate an invasion. His words emphasize just how volatile the Korean situation is.

The centerpiece of the tour is a visit to the Cheorwan Observation Centre, situated a mere stone’s throw from the DMZ, with a bird’s eye view of North Korea. Of course, there is scant opportunity to see what life is actually like in the most secluded country on earth, but the little we can see is equal parts fascinating and shocking. On the South Korean side, the farmland is lush, the vegetation rich; a reflection of an age of prosperity. It’s in marked contrast with what we see on the other side.

On the entry point to North Korea, the thriving nature reserve that has been created by default in the DMZ comes to an abrupt halt. Everything living has been flattened, lest it provide camouflage for anyone attempting to escape across the border. There is a North Korean army base visible, looming disturbingly large on a hilltop. The smoke of a fire evidently lit by there soldiers rose towards the sky. Since I’ve been in Korea (actually, since long before it), I have wondered about the North and the peninsula’s situation. Being within such proximity was surreal and if truth be told, thrilling.

Traveling to the DMZ was a worthwhile experience: interesting and enlightening… and, yes, fun. However, it would be advisable to keep your expectations in check. You will not see anything you’re not supposed to, so be realistic… if you manage to do so, you’ll be in for a real treat.

Written for Say Kimchi News

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.

Feed The Boats @ Speakeasy Bar

Written for The Gwangju News

Hearing of a live rock band playing in Gwangju is a bit like seeing an oasis on the horizon after months of traipsing thirstily over scorched desert plains. Sure, the internet allows anybody with a modicum of know-how to keep up to date with whatever tickled their eardrums at home, but any active music fan begins to crave the sweat and grime of a ramshackle gig before long.

And so it was, on the weekend of Gwangju World Music Festival, that Speakeasy paid host to one of the most omnipotent bands in town, Feed The Boats. And the gods were seemingly on their side. With the weather ensuring the Festival was a washout, the boats were duly fed. Patrons streamed through the door in the shape of a one-fingered salute, directed at Festival organizers, who had chosen to overlook Speakeasy when selecting after-party venues for the event. Did somebody say karma?

In some respects, Feed The Boats couldn’t really fail tonight. A bunch of pie-eyed, gig-starved westerners are hardly the most difficult crowd to please, but credit where it’s due: they put on a good show. Their set list was well chosen: a mixture of crowd pleasers and what seemed to be personal favourites. The crowd, well oiled after a warm up set from Deserts, responded well to each number; dancing, singing along and hurling compliments toward the stage. The lead singer has an excellent voice: guttural and grungy, a refreshing take on Courtney Love or Brody Dalle. And so, it was no surprise when they launched into a rollicking Distillers number.

Likewise, their take on Mod classic A Town Called Malice is pleasing, but not wholly unanticipated, given the poker-faced Englishman in tow. Feed The Boats’ style is a well-worn brand of bar-rock; toying with alternative and EMO, before settling somewhere in the middle. The original numbers they play are greeted warmly, but it’s their versions of a couple of classics that will endure. The schism between The Crystals and The Replacements could never be overstated, so congratulations to Feed The Boats for going some way to bridge the gap, with an enjoyable rendition of And Then I Kissed Her and the Minneapolis outfit’s Bastards of Young, delivered in the only way it should be: loud, fast and rickety.

No, Feed The Boats won’t win any awards for originality, but they should be commended for providing what was certainly the most entertaining option on a Saturday night in Gwangju.

Video: The Replacements – Bastards of Young

Woobang Tower Jump, Daegu

Written for the Say Kimchi News

I’ve always been a bit of a coward, yet paradoxically, always been pretty keen on scaring the crap out of myself. I think I forget the first part until right before I’m about to do the second. Last week I had a couple of days off work, so I decided I’d go to Daegu to jump off a building. Daegu is Korea’s third city (if, like many, you consider Incheon to be part of Seoul) and home to Woobang Tower, the tallest tower in Asia. They’ve built an amusement park around it, WoobangTower Land, which seems similar in scale to Gwangju’s own Family Land: pretty small, but not bad for an afternoon if you’re at a loose end.

Woobang Tower is 202m high (312m in altitude) and is similar in structure to the CN Tower in Toronto, formerly the world’s tallest free-standing structure (553m) and one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. At the top of Woobang Tower is a revolving restaurant. There’s a 360° observation deck which gives you stunning, panoramic views of the city below which, incidentally, is huge. Coming from a small Irish town, Gwangju seemed sprawling to me (especially from the top of Mudeung Mountain), but Daegu is a massive step up in terms of scale. From the top of Woobang Tower, you really get an idea of how big it is.

We set off from Gwangju early in the morning and arrived around lunchtime. There were three of us, two jumpers and a photographer, and we met another friend in Daegu who jumped with us. We were all excited; laughing and joking without giving a moment’s consideration to what we were about to do. That was until the Tower became visible in the distance on the taxi ride to Woobang Land. It dominates the horizon. The closer we got, the taller it seemed and when we were within a few hundred metres of it, we saw a little gangway protruding from near the top. This was where we would fall from.

Feeling a little sheepish (and not a little sick) we made our way around the perimeter of the park until we reached the foot of the Tower. We paid (for three people, it was 100,000W, very reasonable) and got on the elevator for the 76th floor. The laughing stopped. Suddenly, it wasn’t funny anymore. Looking at each other for some sort of comfort was futile; the others were either praying or holding their hands over their faces. Yikes. There was a teenage girl ahead of us in the queue so we could see exactly what we had let ourselves in for and as she shimmied closer to the edge of the “plank”, white as a ghost, I felt nothing but sympathy!

The jump itself is not a bungee, which I initially thought, but a sky-jump. It’s like base jumping, except you have a cable attached to your back. Kitted out in the finest race suits this size of Talladega Nights, we decided on which order we would jump in (I was second) and then waited. As with most adrenaline-based activities, this is by far the worst part. Every sort of eventuality runs through your head until eventually, you’ve thought of all of the worst things that can happen and an accepting calm descends over you; at least for a minute. When my turn came I was led out to walk the plank. They strapped a harness onto me and explained a few things to me about what was going to happen. The problem is, I don’t speak Korean. I just smiled and nodded, such has become my custom in this fine nation.

I stood at the edge of the gangway for about a minute, getting properly strapped in. Then, I leaned forward, looking at the ground beneath me… it seemed like miles away! The attendant told me to let go and just like that, I was in suspended animation, 132 metres above a sprawling Korean metropolis. Hanging there, horizontally, was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had. I was trying to squeeze out a smile, as the Korean guy is taking pictures of me (as part of the package, you get some photos and a certificate). And after what seemed like minutes (maximum hang time: 30 seconds), I was falling. This part is not frightening. You drop at a leisurely speed to a target at the bottom, where you’re released from your harness and left to ponder your “achievement”. Breathless and a little befuddled, I was greeted at the bottom by my friends. What a rush! For only 33,000W, the Woobang Tower Sky Jump is highly recommended.

Korean Grand Prix Preview

Written for the Gwangju News

On Sunday October 24th of this year, a cacophonous drone emanating from a stretch of tarmac in Yeongam, just south of Gwangju, will chauffer in a new era in Korean spectator sport. The country will join an elite band of 18 others in paying host to a Formula One Grand Prix. It is testament to Korea’s growing presence on the international stage that they have convinced F1’s governing body of their capability to host such a high profile event. Some speculate that it may bring even greater rewards to the nation than the 2002 World Cup. Should that be the case, Korean sport is in for a serious boost.

The inaugural South Korean Grand Prix will attract a crowd of around 130,000 to the newly built Korea International Circuit and officials have been scrambling to find ways to accommodate the masses due to descend on South Jeolla. Car parks are under construction, hundreds of shuttle buses are to be laid on. This sleepy, rural community is about to get a whole lot louder, but a few days of autumnal madness will undoubtedly bode well for the region’s finances.

F1 has long since been tagged as a rich man’s sport, filled with charmers and playboys like Flavio Briatore ( former Benetton and Renault head honcho, former beau of Heidi Klum and larger than life impresario, now banned from the sport because of his part in the Crashgate scandal in 2008) and Eddie Irvine (straight talking and flamboyant Irishman, former Ferrari driver and once a squeeze of Pamela Anderson). Ticket prices are often condemned for being astronomical, unaffordable by locals in many venues. The South Korean Grand Prix will do well to avoid such criticism. The cheapest come in at around 165,000 Won. For the best seats, you can expect to pay upwards of 1.2 million. The locals may have to be content with a thunderous hum, rattling their windows. But the money invested in the area through tourism will more than make up for the racket.

Unsurprisingly considering it’s the world’s fifth largest producer of cars, this is not the first time Korea has attempted to host a GP. The government previously attempted to capitalize on the industry’s standing when they reached an agreement to host an event in 1998, although a lack of funding hindered the construction of a circuit. Malaysia won the race to host another F1 event in Asia and the blogosphere’s rumor mill is rife with allegations that F1 CEO Bernie Eccleston managed to keep the money originally paid to him by race promoters. Indeed, the 2010 race has not come to fruition without a few hitches, either. There were whispers right up until the beginning of the summer that it would not go ahead. Initially, doubts were harbored over whether the course would be ready in time. Promoters, Korea Auto Valley Operation (KAVO), however, were at pains to dispel such fears, announcing that the track would open on September 5th. Perhaps of more serious concern to the survival of the race has been the recent unrest between North and South Korea. Political uncertainties on the Peninsula sparked rumors that the GP would be moved to a venue in Europe, with Magny Cours (France) and Motorland Aragon (Spain) mooted as potential replacements. But with the checkered flag looming ever nearer, it would seem the organizers have avoided such measures and that the event will go ahead as planned.

The deal the Korean committee has struck with the governing body will see the country host a Grand Prix every year for the next seven, with an option to extend the deal for another five. The course itself has been compared with another Spanish track, that of Valencia. Designed by Herman Tilke (the brains behind circuits in Abu Dhabi, Malaysia, Bahrain, Singapore, China and many other venues), it’s the second longest track on the calendar, trailing only Monza in Italy at 5.6 km per lap. Along with Turkey and Brazil, it’s the only track whose racing direction is counter-clockwise. The estimated average speed for an F1 car around the course is 212km/h, with a maximum speed of 320km/h, meaning the quickest cars should be getting around in about 1.5 minutes.

And with the race being number seventeen of nineteen, you can be sure that there won’t be any drivers holding back. After winning the Hungarian GP in Red Bull’s Mark Webber (Australia) is hoping to seal his first ever championship crown. He leads 2008’s champion Lewis Hamilton (McLaren, UK) by just four points, with his teammate Sebastian Vettel (Germany) trailing by a further six. The party travels to Belgium, Italy, Singapore and Japan before making its maiden voyage to Korea in October. The Japanese have traditionally put on a spectacular show and their Korean counterparts would no doubt be delighted to emulate them. All eyes will be on Yeongam on the weekend of the 22nd to see if they can do exactly that.

Boryeong Mud Festival: Not all it’s cracked up to be

July was a busy month. It was always going to be. My girlfriend visited me and stayed the duration. Naturally, we wanted to make the most of it. I had spent May and June tossing ideas around, deliberating how to squeeze the absolute best from our weekends. My working schedule (3pm – 10pm) meant we couldn’t do much travelling during the week. That said, we still got plenty done. The life of an ESL teacher (particularly one employed in a hagwon) is a nocturnal existence. I must’ve had twenty suggestions or ideas about things to do on our four weekends together, but throughout that time, there was only one constant: Boryeong Mud Festival.

It’s been called “Asia’s Number One Festival”, and not just by the press releases. Every sinner we spoke to eulogized it. Nobody, it seemed had a bad word to say about it. Until now. July, especially the early part of the month, is monsoon season in Korea. It rains, heavily. It’s clammy and sticky, but not very sunny. We weren’t surprised to arise on the Saturday on which we were making our way north to Daecheon (the city where Boryeong beach is) to overcast skies. We weren’t even disappointed as the heavens opened above our train carriage. We were in excellent spirits, our whistles whetted by a couple of early morning beers en route.

But as soon as we touched down at the festival itself, we felt a tingle of discomfort. The atmosphere was one of anticipation, but not in a good way, more anxiety. As we made our way to the changing areas, people were jostling past, being unfriendly and rude. Skipping ahead in queues (and not just the ajumas – older ladies in Korea that seem to have rite of passage through even the busiest terminals) and generally throwing daggers from one end of the place to another. We got some food. There was a lot of hustle and bustle – nothing new in Korea – but a little more sinister.

This was not what I’ve come to expect from the country. Looking around me, it was pretty clear why: there were no Koreans there. The crowd was comprised of ESL teachers and GIs on vacation from one of the numerous bases scattered around the country. “What the hell…” we thought, tucking into a bottle of soju. “Everything will be alright when we get a roll in the mud.So we finished our food and soju and headed for the entrance. We were greeted by one of the poorest set ups at a festival I’ve ever seen.

What was billed as a Mud Festival was really just a load of people getting drunk on the beach. There was an area of mud-based activities; slides; baths; wrestling areas, but you had to queue for a long time to get near any of them. One person told me she’d been queuing for over an hour to go down ONE mud slide and they closed it when she got to the front of the line. No explanation, no justification, just rudeness and mismanagement. We attached our disgruntled bodies to the back of a seemingly never-ending line of mud-hungry westerners. After about 30 minutes, we had had enough and bailed (luckily, on our way back to the beach, we came across a small mud bath and went for a dip. This was to be our only mud-based experience at Boryeong Mud Festival 2010).

The rest of the day we spent swimming in the sea and drinking on the shore… not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, granted, but it was to a backdrop of GI aggression. Later that evening, we went into town to eat. We found ourselves a Korean tour guide who led us to a shellfish restaurant, ate his share of food and promptly scarpered before picking up his share of the tab. The owner continued to try ripping us off. We refused; one of my friends got his Korean girlfriend on the line, which put the willies up the owner: we were onto him. We watched some fireworks and returned to the beach, where we figured we’d spend the night drinking beer, singing songs and having fun. Predictably, it wasn’t to be.

After a late night skinny-dipping session, we fell asleep on the beach, awaking to find our bags gone. The next morning we found them a few hundred yards away, with the stuff strewn all over the beach. My Sony mp3 player was gone, as was my friend’s mobile phone… a fitting end to a pretty disastrous trip. Since I came to Korea the people have been honest, cordial and hospitable. These three sentiments went out the window at Boryeong Mud Festival. I don’t want to come across as a naysayer, because the internet is full of people blogging negatively about Korea.

I am not.

I love it here, which is why the festival was such a shock. To be robbed in Korea is virtually unheard of. Most people I’ve spoken to seem pretty sure it was a westerner that did it and I have to agree. It’s commonplace at home, but that doesn’t excuse it. The entire atmosphere at Boryeong was wrong. In future, I’ll be careful to avoid gatherings like this. I didn’t come 6,000 miles to experience the shoddier traits of the western world. This weekend was isolated and I hope to keep it that way.