Thursday, 25 February 2010

Lenin, Friedman and starvation

After denomination of the currency in North Korea prices went high and people started facing hunger again. It took the North Korean government 2 months to react on the issue and in the late January Kim Jong Il held a special summit related to starvation crisis.

Since that time the central government sends 5 kg of rice daily to each People's Unit and from 5 to 15kg to enterprises and businesses (if one can call them such).
That caused the relief to citizens and no new cases of starvation have been reported so far.

Officials in local authorities are said to be punished if they do not supervise the aid properly and react to the circumstances.

All of that is a surprising reaction of the government which rules ruthlessly the communist state and where citizens have no rights whatsoever.

It is possible that this time if they do not react, people of North Korea will finally revolt against the regime.

The optimal social system for people to live in has been always a subject of dispute. Obviously democracy is the God's favorite, but economic conditions are the topic on the table.

More or less 130 years ago in Great Britain two social activists have invented basics of socialism which were later applied into bloody action by Lenin himself.

If we think about contemporary China or North Korea, that all was invented in Europe as a response to abusive capitalism with no welfare and social care.

On the surface communism is not bad at all. It assumes fair share of all goods between everyone involved in the system. But what is more in human nature is competition and comparison to others. Most of times we are happy to have more than others and it is just this way in our genes. To impose ideas which are against human nature one needs strong power and system of control, that is what happens in communism.

On the other hand some time ago in USA a guy named Milton Friedman invented the idea that the market regulates itself and that all players behavior is rational and aims for the best. That is not quite true and everyone knows as much.

But such a conflict remains. Conflict between a system of chances and responsibility and system of shortages and regulated life. People prefer to have, to possess and to be happy. This is in their basic needs.

Communism itself led always to the economy of shortages. And it was exactly that which made regimes collapsed provided that they were not aided externally.

Last thought which comes to my mind is that socialism in democratic states made enourmous career and settled down in the social and economic system, placed itself forever in Germany, France or Scandinavia. State protection system which is imposed by force will sooner or later collapse. Better sooner than later.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

설날 The Lunar New Year

The Lunar New Year in Far East is one of the most important holidays. In Korea it is the family event, equivalent to the Christmas time in Western culture.

It is when every Korean meets with relatives and buys gifts. On Seollal people reattach to their families, renew relations and make new starts with quantities of issues which got previously mixed up.

Lunar New Year holidays are 3 days. This year Koreans were not lucky as the Seollal was on Sunday, it meant no additional day off. However most of people work normally on Saturdays or go to the labs to study, on this weekend exclusively Seoul got empty.

Normally during the rush hour it is so busy that travelling 1 km by taxi can get 20 minutes and it is really difficult to find space to squeeze into the subway. Not during the Lunar New Year. On Saturday Koreans went by cars, trains and buses away from the city to enjoy some quiet time, well at least those who do well with their families.

During this time one is not supposed to meet with anyone else. My Korean friend Youn Seok could not even meet his girlfriend on Sunday saying that he is stuck with his family on that time.

Knowing about this beforehand I was really afraid that it will be rather lonely weekend, one of these few moments I really feel like nothing more than just an expatriate.

I was grateful and surprised when my close friend, Iris (Doe Won), invited me and two Russian friends to spend a New Year's Day with her and her family. We had a warm welcome and a family lunch cooked by Han Ajumoni ( Mrs Han) and later went for a field trip by car driven around by Mr Han.

We had a chance to experience how Korean people respect and adore their history and heritage. In Europe most of the citizens do not care and the lasting identity is preserved by a narrow group of conscious people. Unlike in Korea where patriotism is very important.

We saw the Royal Tomb of Seojong The Great whose actions resulted in writing down the Korean language in the alphabet. We were invited into the village near Yeoju and seen the farming industry of current times.

In the evening we were back to Seoul happy with impressions. Iris gave us a feeling of being the part of the society, the kind hospitality I will never forget. Thank you dear friend.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Earthquake in Seoul

Two days ago there was an earthquake here in Seoul. A magnitude 3.0 shake occurred with its epicenter located near western Seoul on Tuesday evening. No injuries or serious property damage were reported.

The question is, how Seoul, a city of 20 million residents living in skyscrapers, is resistant to such a hazard?

Natural hazards cause loss of more than $700 million in property every year, mostly due to flooding and landslides during monsoon season. Occasionally tsunami or drought hits the peninsula adding more costs and loss to recover.

As to the risk of earthquakes, Korea is not based directly at the Pacific Hot Ring, but close enough to be called a semiseismic territory with small but present danger of an earthquake bigger than 6 Richter scale degrees.

Pacific tectonic plate meets with Eurasian one in the subduction zone through Japan and Philippines. From the west though, occasional wave of shakes may occur because of constant movement of Indian plate to the north.

Oldest chronicles note such phenomena in Korea. In 779 AD the quake killed 100 people and destroyed number of houses in Gyeongju, capital of Silla. During the Japanese occupation regular earthquake observation system was established and noted more than 320 cases of moderate magnitude.

In 1978 an earthquake of 5.0 destroyed 1128 buildings in one of the smaller cities in Korea, no casualties were reported luckily.

Before that, only public facilities, such as power plants and tunnels had any quake- resistant design. After 1978 every building taller than 6 levels has to be earthquake - resistant based on the average risk which is magnitude of 7.

If it comes to houses and apartments, this is the most vulnerable issue. Before 1988 citizens did not matter much in South Korea, or at least not their private belongings such as places to live. There was also no middle class, as middle range salary sector emerged with establishing of democracy in 1988. Since then, more attention and civil control is put to the Civil Defence.

After 1995 when severe earthquake stroke Kobe in Japan central government established special research institute which aim is to map and address the risk of quakes.

There are also a lot of agencies and offices which address the issue in terms of reaction, response and loss restoration, like Safety Management Bureau, National Safety Management Information System, National Disaster Management System, but their major problem is lack of sufficient communication systems and being understaffed ( as stated in:

What would be sites fragile to the quake? Squatters in some parts of the city, where rural migrants still live, as well some poor quarters of Bongcheon-dong, some sites of north Seoul, old buildings in Yongno.

What to do in case of a quake:
- don't panic
- avoid elevators
- cut off gas and electricity
- evacuate if possible

BTW. And the quake of 3.0 or similar you may as well sleep through as I did :P

Friday, 5 February 2010

Indo - Korean experience

... a short insight into Indo- Korean relations.

Two weeks ago I had an honor to join my Indian friends in the Indo - Korean cultural show organized by the Indian Embassy at Sogang University here in Seoul.

So far relations between two countries have been mostly economic. Korean chebols like Samsung or LG for instance, successfully established branches in India, independently governed as seperate equities.

Between unified confucianist nation and diversed and complex people of Dekan have not been so far a lot of cultural exchange or mutual interest.

One and half an hour long performance is a good start.
In the beginning we saw traditional singers from Nagaland - that is in the very north of India, as I have learned from Subho, they sang tribal theme based song.

I mostly enjoyed Bollywood dance show by 4 Korean girls, dressed in beautiful colorful dancing gowns.

There was also a show of Yoga Dance by Korean dance group and at the very end the show of Korean music drums.

In between the public was entertained with a part of an Indian play Bhagvat Gita in Korean. I should not forget about fusion music band.

Growing balance of trade between two countries made president of South Korea Lee Myeong- Bak be invited as a chief guest for 60th anniversary of Indian Constitution.

For that occasion The Times of India interviewed Mr President, who gave nice speech on bilateral relations. Full version of the interview is here:

Among many remarks Mr President made on the topic, I would adress two of them here.
I have to agree with the fact that Indian technical skills reach the level of genius combined with efficiency, hence most welcome everywhere, not only in Korea.

I would not agree though with the "green Korea" and definately with Korea as a leader in the "green growth". "Green" and "sustainable" are terms I am very familiar with.

Let's discuss sustainable heat saving architecture and efficient heating systems. Only recently I have seen any thermo protection layers put on newly built constructions. But it doesn't change the fact that hardly any door or window can stop the wind from blowing into the apartment.

Another "green" example. Lots of trush is put in the sea and in the rivers, not to mention the streets. Waste is private so noone really cares what farmers and owners of some enterprices in the countryside do with their trush.

Bigger companies do not give good example of sustainable policy as well. Posco which has the motto "Green and clean" is constantly polluting the Japanese Sea.

President Lee Myeong Bak is a man of action, transformed Seoul a lot. But it takes time before I am convinced that Korean society has any "green" or green attitude.

Note: photos by Subho, thank you :)

Thursday, 4 February 2010

North and South continued

If the divide between the two Koreas persist, and North Korea remains a closed country for many more years, will it become a new nation, with a new set of core values?

I assume one can only speculate about that. There has hardly been such situation on the global map before 20th century, as before that political powers fought one with another with it's borders quite open for average citizens. Any sort of fiercely guarded border is quite new invention, as well as communism and the Iron Courtain.

Nevertheless North Koreans are quite different by now in their mental attitude. They live a life of zoo animals who are fed, whose life is organized and who don't have to think much and don't really have to fight in life. Don't have to build up their careers, don't have to think about their career and future in the age of 7.

There is a risk that if that regime lasts sufficiently long, this may get so deep inside their mentality that even if it collapses they will not be really able to manage their lives. Such mental construct is called Homo Sovieticus.

The very same phenomenon explains why Russia struggles with autocratic power shift with quite passive social attitude.

In parallel South Korea faces crucial cultural changes these years. Since 2007 a lot has changed in the way people dress, bahave or in their values. The breakthrough generation slowly takes over. This generation is less and less obedient and collectivist. It will still take another 50 years or so, but it happens on our eyes - South Korea is changing into the modern democratic capitalist state. The self responsibility for one's life will grow. Growing freedom imposes greater self reliance and responsibility of a person. Even now average South Korean citizen is used to minimal state aid and has to manage his own life independently.

The pace of time will add it's influence and the feeling of "oneness" will vanish. I guess there will be two separate Korean nations.

Fresh news say that North Korea faces wave of food shortages again. Growing number of citizens escape abroad.

The only way for the regime to collapse is the same attitude of USA which made USSR collapse. Constant economic aid for regime is not doing to it's citizens any better, it will very likely compromize their minds. Just as it happens in other totalitarian states which entered global economy - if you obey then you're rich. If you don't obey, then you stay poor. I guess that will be the entirely new category of people.