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Seoul, November 12
At the end of this fractious G20 summit, this is the image that stands out for me. I took the picture during one of the press briefings held after the release of the final communiqué. This Korean man had a front row seat in the auditorium where President Obama was speaking. But having such a prime spot (reporters and participants scrambled to get the chance to hear Obama) obviously wasn’t any big deal for this man. A chance to be awed and get up close to the leader of one of the world’s most powerful countries? No, more of a chance to catch up on some lost sleep! But who can blame him after such a hard summit?
President Obama tried to put a positive spin on the meeting, but faced difficult questions. He was also asked tricky questions about his troubles back at home, which he may have been glad to get away from for a few days. He tried to take his last question from a local Korean journalist, after so many questions from American reporters, but failed miserably. The man he chose for the last question was in fact Chinese, who argued with Obama about why he should be allowed to ask his question anyway. When the president said that actually he would prefer to take the question from a Korean, the Chinese reporter said he could ask his question on behalf of the Koreans, and in fact on behalf of all Asians. The president ended up giving in.
The French President Nicolas Sarkozy might be pleased to hear that the journalists who covered his briefing - which was not in an auditorium like Obama but in a small side room - broke into a sprint when being escorted there by officials. I prefer to imagine that they were eager to get the perfect seats and positions for their cameras, as opposed to being so impatient to hear the president’s thoughts on how the G20 went.
Sarkozy can be very difficult in these kinds of press conferences, and he is often filmed berating or ridiculing a journalist whose questions he doesn’t like. That didn’t put me off asking my question, though, about how he intends to deal with all the tension between the different countries when France soon takes on the presidency of the G20. Sarkozy said my question was “discouraging”, as he’d already laid out what he thought were the perfect solutions. I did worry that he might pick up on my accent in French and make something of it. But no, there was no berating or ridiculing. Another newspaper journalist got a slight dressing down, though, someone I’m sure has experienced a similar situation with the president before.
At the end of this summit, all the talking and intense negotiations were boiled down to a 22-page final communiqué. This was said to be the longest ever for a G20 summit, and South Korea got the credit for managing to make sure that all of its key topics, including development, were covered. There was a funny moment when dozens of reporters staged a mini stampede in the massive media centre after hearing rumours that the communiqué had been printed and was about to be made available. It ended up being a false alarm, though, and there were two more after that. Later, in a sign of the times, the G20 organisers eventually announced over a loud speaker that the communiqué was in fact going to be uploaded onto the G20 website.
Seoul, November 11
The first protest on day one of the G20 summit was a chance to get a glimpse of the various techniques employed by the South Korean police. Some of the officers walking around looking like robo-cops give the impression of being people who do not muck about, who will move in fast when they believe public order is compromised. The glimpses of police training exercises we’ve seen also give that impression. (It has to be said, though, that many other officers look completely harmless, barely out of school. I saw four of them swooning and fussing over a baby in a pram on the metro train the other day, which at least shows they are human and have a good rapport with the public.) But this first protest on the opening day of the summit evolved in a rather meditative kind of way.
My camera crew and I just happened to be standing on the steps leading up to the summit venue a little after nine in the morning. Everything was quiet. No sign of protests. The world leaders were probably not yet out of their dressing gowns, with their first meeting of the day a working dinner in the evening. The area around the summit is a no-go-zone for protesters, but that didn’t stop one young Korean man who thought he might try his luck.
The lone demonstrator, wearing an expensive-looking business suit, calmly appeared and raised a placard to protest against river pollution and what he called a lack of action on green issues. It wasn’t long before the police pounced. Numerous officers appeared from nowhere. But it wasn’t the tough action I expected, and the man was not immediately whisked away.
I can only describe the 10 minutes that followed as like a scene of intense meditation. The officers formed a semi-circle in front of the protester, getting right up close to him, and attempted to block anyone from reading his placard. It was all done very calmly, with not a word from the officers. There was a man in civilian clothes who raised his voice in a conversation with the protester, but the officers themselves just stared straight ahead, no emotion on their faces. That was the weird part. The officers just kept looking straight into the protester’s eyes, and the protester stared right back. Not a word was exchanged.
This gave us a chance to film the incident, and we even had time to set up the camera and record a piece of commentary with the scene behind me. The man was clearly breaching the law on protests around the venue, but he didn’t seem too worried about being surrounded by so many officers. It was only a matter of time before he was taken away. He went peacefully, though, taken away in a police car, and holding his placard high above his head as he was escorted by the officers. We don’t know whether he’ll be charged or not. He’s probably very happy, though. He was the first protest on the opening day of the summit, an event recorded by us and other TV cameras. His one-man protest got an airing around the world.
A big mass rally was held later in the day at Seoul’s main railway station, about 15 kilometres from the summit venue. Hundreds of riot police surrounded the demonstrators and the event was peaceful on the whole. Only authorised protest rallies and marches are being accepted here during the summit, a controversial move denounced by trade unions and anti-globalisation groups. They also criticise the two kilometre security zone around the summit, but vow that they will still make their voices heard. But will there be the calm, intense staring from the police if they’re confronted with thousands of angry protesters?
Seoul, November 10
The organisers of the G20 couldn’t have hoped for better weather in the South Korean capital. It’s been a little cold at times over the past few weeks, but very mild compared to what some people had feared for this time of year. Today, on the eve of the summit, the sky was a perfect blue and there was a pleasant temperature. Fingers crossed for the rest of the week!
Maybe the pleasant surroundings will help ensure that all of the world leaders are in good, productive moods, and there will be progress on some of the thornier issues on the agenda. Will they have the time to sample the treats on offer here, between the intense discussion on currencies and all things financial? I’m not so sure. But it may be just the remedy for stressed-out leaders who can’t agree.
The city of Seoul really has gone to great lengths to spruce the place up for the arrival of the VIPs, and it seems that Mother Nature has done her bit as well. The autumn colours here are outstanding, and this does seem to have been the perfect date to hold the event. You only have to look at these photos to get a feel for what the city looks like at this time of year. There are quite a few leafy suburbs in the heart of Seoul, and the hills that surround the city are also splashed with orange and red.
Talking of Mother Nature, and the preparation/beautification for the G20 events, there was one piece of local news that caught my eye. The Korea Herald reported that the city of Gyeongju asked local farmers to grow special apples for the meeting of G20 finance ministers last month. The paper said “farmers ripened parts of each apple’s skin at varying rates to produce the name of a G20 country on each fruit”. When I said great lengths earlier, maybe I should have said extraordinary lengths! Seriously, though, the organisation ahead of this summit has been impressive, to say the least.
Tours of the city are being offered to the thousands of visitors who’ve come here for the summit, including the estimated 4,000 journalists. Seoul is in full-on promotion mode and officials are hoping people will go away and spread the good word about what is on offer here. It’s not often so many important cameras come this way, with so many world leaders visiting all at once. And now, with the summit upon us, they can only hope the cameras aren’t forced to focus on things less pleasant, such as nasty clashes in the streets.
Seoul, November 8
Given the United States military has as many as 30,000 personnel based in South Korea, I figured it wouldn’t be long before I bumped into some American soldiers or their families. In fact, they are not as visible as I expected. The US military, which has ground, air and naval forces here, seems to keep a low profile on the streets of Seoul. But if you go to some of the soldiers’ favourite hangouts, it’s a different story altogether.
Itaewon, the lively district popular with foreign visitors and expats, is the only place where I have seen US soldiers in uniform. These are not the regular soldiers, but the soldiers who seem to police the soldiers. They patrol in groups of five or six, apparently keeping an eye out for any potential trouble involving American military personnel. It’s true that it can get pretty raucous in Itaewon on a Friday or Saturday night, and many among the merry crowds coming out of the bars and pubs don’t hide the fact they are off-duty soldiers. I spoke to a couple of airmen who told me some very animated, incredible stories about their time here. The US has been based in this country since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953. Vast numbers of American soldiers have had tours of duty here, and there’s no surprise that they have left their stamp on several districts, particularly Itaewon.
There are many bars and restaurants with English names (and even one with a Russian name), and one is called “UN Club”. One expat told me that the district is a direct copy of the “fast and furious” neighbourhoods that can be found in the US. “The boys need to feel like they’re at home every now and then!” he said.
The US commander here, General Walter Sharp, had this to say on the US Forces Korea website: “Korea is a great place to train and live. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, DOD Civilians, and family members that make up the USFK team are fortunate to participate in some of the most realistic and effective training throughout the armed forces. Additionally, those serving and living in Korea have ample opportunities to experience one of the most dynamic cultures in the world.”
However, I have come across a certain level of opposition to the continued presence of American troops, even though they say they are here to protect South Korea from any “external aggression”. The border between North and South Korea is one of the most heavily fortified in the world. Over the years there have been numerous demonstrations against the status of the US troops here, especially in light of numerous high-profile criminal cases involving military personnel. People still talk about these incidents with bitterness, including the murder of a college student in a fast-food restaurant in Itaewon in 1997. One suspect was the child of a US soldier, the other a Korean-American. Another case was the brutal murder and rape of a prostitute by an American Private in 1992. But others do express their gratitude to the US soldiers, saying they never want to see them leave as long as there are still tensions with the North.
And it’s not just soldiers partying hard on their days off in Itaewon. We interviewed some expat teachers while filming there for our Focus report (on air from Wednesday). In fact, most of the foreign people I have met here have either been soldiers or English teachers. Many of them say that Itaewon is their number one destination at the weekends, with pubs and clubs staying open round the clock. “They say that Las Vegas is the city that doesn’t sleep,” one young American woman told me. “Well I think that Seoul is the city that doesn’t sleep!”
Seoul, November 5
The competition among Asian cities wanting to join the list of the world’s best “24-hour cities” seems to be heating up. They have grown to realise how important it is to make themselves more attractive to tourists with money to burn, while at the same time make things more dynamic for local residents. Seoul is one of those capitals trying to adopt the “city that never sleeps” tag. It’s true that there seems to be something here for everyone, especially when it comes to eating, drinking and going out on the town. But it would be a shame to overlook the fact that there’s also a lot going on here in terms of culture and the arts.
There are numerous venues that put on impressive performances of traditional dance and music, and two venues we visited for our next “Focus” report (on air from Wednesday November 10) provided wonderful visual feasts. The sounds, colour and raw energy in the performances make them a must-see for any overseas visitor. There is such a wonderful array of events, though, that it’s difficult to decide what not to see. But tourist information kiosks are everywhere, and friendly staff can help draw up cultural itineraries.
International shows are also big here. One blockbuster on at the moment is the first Asian version of the musical Billy Elliot; and from the sample we saw a few days ago, they’ve done a brilliant job with the adaptation. This is also the first non-English version of the musical in the world. We will actually get to see the whole performance on Sunday night (LG centre), but in the meantime we got the chance to interview one of the four young Korean lads who play Billy. One of the four is just 10-years-old! It was interesting to see that the advertising posters for the musical feature the original British actor who played Billy and not one of the Korean boys.
On a smaller scale, a new production of the absurdist Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot opens on November 9. What a thrill it was to see the opening of this play in Korean, with what I reckon is a superb interpretation of the famous roles. The director, Lim Young-Woong, first brought the play to Seoul in 1969 and has won numerous awards. He told us that his wife translated the work from French into Korean, and it was difficult to crack all of the complex dialogue. The play, advertised here with the English title, is on at the famous Sanwoollim Theatre. In 2008, Lim performed the play at Trinity College in Dublin.
Speaking of things cultural, I just had to make a visit today to the factory where a South Korean range of pianos is made. I am currently searching for a new piano and I got to play numerous models, including a whole new series that has been totally redesigned under the guidance of an American piano designer. What a shame there’s no more space in my suitcase! I was so impressed with the new series that I would’ve bought one there and then and had it delivered… except there is the little issue of customs and tax to consider.
Seoul, November 3
There will be no excuse for anyone caught snoozing on the job at the G20 summit; this city could fill an ocean with the amount of coffee that is being poured here. Seoul seems to be turning itself into Asia’s café culture capital, with what locals tell me has been an explosion of new cafés over the past five years. They are absolutely everywhere, in the city centre and in the suburbs, and are mostly owned by foreign and local chains. They are also packed out most of the time. The majority have English names, and at least two of them are in French (the Eiffel Tower features in the logo of one of them, a café that is very, very popular!). Someone told me today that it’s no longer the Republic of Korea; it’s the Republic of Coffee! I’ve also seen that phrase in a local magazine left in my hotel room.
The café boom is perfect for overseas visitors with jetlag, desperate to keep their eyes on the ball, with a quick caffeine fix available on every corner. But I can’t help but feel sad to see an Asian city’s high streets beginning to resemble those of New York, London or Sydney. Korean people seem to love these new hangouts, however, and they are certainly voting with their bottoms on seats. Maybe it would make things less troubling if there weren’t so many cafés with Western names and generic decors. Did the Korean chains really have to go for English and French names?
It is still possible to find more traditional eating places, but you do have to look harder. I certainly hope these charming little places don’t disappear, pushed out by the big chains and higher rents. We visited one new café today (part of a chain), in what used to be a motorbike shop. A café will probably be more profitable. Yesterday I walked down another street in the city centre and counted the number of cafés on a stretch of two blocks: 16! Surely they can’t all stay in business? But no, they were all busy, with people reading, working on laptops, huddled together in groups. Some of the smaller, more traditional eating places were mostly empty.
It would be interesting to find out the total number of cafés here and compare that to other cities of a similar size. I wouldn’t be surprised if Seoul ended up being declared the café capital of the world. I have asked our assistant/translator to see if she can dig out any figures. And is there a problem with insomnia here? Hyped-up business meetings? Students who are wide awake but totally wired? I remember those famous videos of South Korean deputies having physical fights in parliament during heated debates. Could it be they are also café devotees with frazzled nerves? Taking in too much caffeine in one day? I have had to discipline myself, to block out this constant temptation for a coffee on every corner.
And what about tea? I was expecting loads of specialty tea shops, with wonderful herbal concoctions of ginseng and the like. I have found one or two, but it seems tea has become the poor cousin of coffee here, at least on the high streets. Fast food also seems to be big here, but at least one small restaurant near my hotel looks like it’s fighting back. It has this advertisement for its dishes up on the window: slow food!
Seoul, November 2
Extraordinary situations often call for extraordinary measures, and officials in Seoul have come up with novel ways of making sure the city doesn’t choke in traffic congestion during the G20 summit. It’s reported here that public offices will be opening later than usual on both mornings of the event (10am) in an attempt to reduce traffic. Private firms are being urged to do the same. “Hooray for the G20!” I hear those lucky workers shouting. I’m told that people are normally in the office at eight over here (sometimes earlier), and then put in 10-12 hour days - and that doesn’t include the long journeys many have to make to get into the city from the suburbs. I imagine an extra sleep-in on the days of the summit will be welcome news. However, I don’t suppose my bosses will want me having a sleep-in on November 11 and 12 (the jetlag refuses to pass), even if I did argue that it would be helping to reduce traffic congestion in Seoul. No, I’m afraid it’ll be an early start for me on those days, with so much on the agenda at this event.
But that’s not the only quirky traffic-fighting measure. A voluntary scheme has been established whereby motorists whose vehicle registration numbers end with even numbers are urged to keep their cars at home during the summit. But voluntary is the word here. How many people will abide by this? And will it be policed? Will the swat teams (mentioned in an earlier blog post) be sent out to chase down those naughty motorists who ignore the public plea? I can’t imagine a voluntary scheme like this working in any European country, but maybe Koreans get in behind these kinds of public initiatives with more enthusiasm. I’d be keen to see how many Koreans heed this latest advice.
When I interviewed the Mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, this week, he said congestion and security were his council’s biggest challenges ahead of the summit. (The mayor’s interview is in a “Focus” report I’ve put together, on air from Wednesday this week). The mayor said: “In any country or city, when foreigners come all at once, circulation is the biggest problem and security is also an obstacle to overcome. We have been placing emphasis on security, transport and accommodation, to give visitors the strong impression that Seoul is well prepared for this event.”
We’ve been getting around a lot by taxi, with the fares reasonably cheap (normally, but keep reading), and the metro system here is also fantastic and easy to use. One metro ticket costs about one euro, and I’ve never seen an underground so clean and efficient. The problem is when the metro closes and you go out late at night. It took me an hour to find a taxi to get home on Saturday night from Itaewon, a popular district for expats, tourists and US soldiers. In fact, there were taxis available, but only if you accepted to pay more than five times the normal price for the journey. I refused out of principle, until I realised that the only way to get from Itaewon to my hotel was a very, very, very long walk. The harsh side of supply and demand is very much alive and well in the South Korean capital!
Seoul, October 31
South Korean police are taking a no-nonsense, tough approach to security ahead of the G20 summit; a recent public display by their special swat teams is proof of that. Mean-looking officers in heavy armour and brandishing large guns gave examples of how they are ready for any security situation, including assassination attempts, terrorist attacks, kidnappings and violence by protesters. “Do not mess with the South Korean police,” is the message being sent out, “as we will not tolerate any disobedience.” So when I was granted an interview with a senior police officer to discuss the security arrangements, I expected a difficult meeting with one of those hard-looking, no-nonsense men. I was actually in for a pleasant surprise.
The senior inspector helping with the strategy to keep the world leaders safe was a young woman with a gentle, friendly manner. Had this been deliberate? To show the world the gentle face behind the tough image? I asked some difficult questions about what the police were planning, and about the strict security zone of two kilometres being set up around the venue. The measures were explained and defended with the odd smile and joke, which is not what my camera crew and I expected. I don’t imagine that the police at the summit will be as smiley and chatty, but I like to think the interview was an indication that the police will carry out their duties fairly and without any excessive use of force. The inspector told us that the main priority is to protect the VIPs, while at the same time minimise any inconvenience to the public.
The interview also made me wonder about gender equality in South Korea. Is it rare to have a female senior inspector? One recent report shows the country has a long way to go to achieve gender equality. The World Economic Forum’s recent Gender Gap Index of 134 countries ranked South Korea 104th. In a country of an estimated 48.8 million people, only 10% of legislators, senior officials or managers are women. On average, men also earn twice as much as women. In terms of labour force participation, 76% of men work, while for women the figure is 55%.
Seoul, October 29
Before coming here to Seoul, a friend told me that Koreans never do anything in half measures; and now I understand what he was talking about. I think it would be very hard to find someone here who has not heard about the upcoming G20 Seoul Summit. The streets are full of advertising and, as you can see in these photos, we’re not just talking your average public poster or banner. Whole skyscrapers have been turned into billboards!
This is being described as South Korea’s biggest international event since the Seoul Olympics in 1988, and everywhere you go the pride is expressed enthusiastically. People here tell me they hope this will give their country more weight on the world stage, and that South Korea will be seen as a key player when it comes to finding global solutions. They are keen to point out that their country is the first in Asia and the first non-G7 nation to host a G20 summit. The effort put into the planning is huge, but officials say it’s impossible to put a figure on how much it has cost. But I imagine it’s a figure with many zeros on the end!
One G20 official told me today that what people crave is foreign news coverage about their country that does not have anything to do with the tense relations with North Korea. Don’t forget there is other stuff that goes on here, they say. Maybe that’s why the billboards are so loud and big. It’s true, though, that those tense relations do come up when security is discussed. Senior officials acknowledge that as well as having to prepare for anti-globalisation protesters, and reported threats from international terrorist groups, there is the possibility of provocation from North Korea.
The army is on high alert and some 50,000 police are being brought in to ensure that the public and the world leaders turning up for the summit remain safe. The boost in security is certainly visible on the streets and we have been stopped a number of times by guards wanting to know what we are filming and who we work for. Thank goodness we have a brilliant assistant and translator with us, so any hassles like that can be quickly sorted out.
*All pictures by Seamus Kearney