Sunday, May 31, 2009

Intellectual Property Rights in Itaewon, Seoul

Taken by this blogger on 31 May 2009 across from the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon, Seoul.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cartoon: Obama and North Korea's nukes


Monday, May 25, 2009

"Thirst" Gets Jury Prize in Cannes

South Korean director Park Chan-wook won the jury prize at the Cannes film festival Sunday for his thriller "Thirst" ("Bakjwi") about a priest-turned vampire struggling with his desire for blood and sex.

Park shared the prize with British director Andrea Arnold, who was honored for "Fish Tank" depicting the troubled life of a teenage girl in a London suburb.

The festival's top prize went to Austrian director Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," a tragic tale of a small German town on the eve of World War I.

This marks the first time that a South Korean film has claimed the honor in Cannes. The jurors praised the blood-soaked vampire film as a "unique noir film."

Park won the festival's Grand Jury Prize in 2004 with his film "Oldboy."

"The joy of creating is my energy in making films. Filmmaking is a joy from the beginning to the end," Park told the audience at the awards ceremony. "I'd like to share this honor with actor Song Gang-ho, a great friend and colleague."

The award is the eighth time a local film has received one of the main awards at the Cannes International Film Festival.

South Korean director Lim Known-taek received the director's award for "Stroke of Fire" in 2002 and actress Jeon Do-yeon took the best actress prize in 2007 for "Secret Sunshine."

"Thirst" competed for top honors at this year's Cannes with 19 other world-renowned directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodovar, Xavier Giannoli and Ang Lee.

Park, who had also won the Alfred Bauer Prize for his science fiction comedy "I'm a Cyborg, But That's Ok" at the Berlin film festival, says it took a decade of preparation to bring the vampire story, a genre rarely explored by South Korean directors, to local screens.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Video: Experience Korea


South Korea's New Songdo City and other zones struggle to lure FDI in downturn

Even in a country known for economic miracles, trying to build the region's most competitive city from scratch looks ambitious.

But on a muddy patch of reclaimed land near South Korea's west coast port of Incheon, the skyline is already taking shape of a metropolis envisioned as a commerce center to rival Singapore or Shanghai, boasting a spotless environment and unrivalled quality of life.

With total building costs set to exceed $20 billion, the Songdo International Business District is, according to its backers, the largest private development project ever undertaken.

Analysts however warn that South Korea's ambivalence toward foreign investment and the fallout from the financial crisis have also made it one of the more vulnerable.

Officials voice confidence over the future of Songdo and the Incheon Free Economic Zone (FEZ) of which it is part.

According to IFEZ commissioner Heonseok Lee, the zone has attracted nearly $60 billion in financing and investment commitments since it was established in 2003, offering tax incentives, subsidised office space and less rigid labor rules.

New York-based Gale International, which with South Korea's POSCO Engineering & Construction is Songdo's main developer, said work on the city is proceeding "at a consistent pace" thanks to financing secured from partners like Morgan Stanley before the downturn began.

The city plans to celebrate its official opening in August and by 2014 should include 50 million square feet of office space, 9,000 new homes, a 100-acre park, top-ranked schools and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf club.


The Incheon zone is the most prominent feature of an unprecedented drive to boost foreign direct investment (FDI), an area in which South Korea has long lagged its neighbors.

Despite the uncertain economic environment, the government hopes to boost FDI by 7 percent this year to $12.5 billion, with FEZs at the forefront of its strategy.

Authorities have designated six zones, each promising resident companies a similar package of cheap land, tax breaks and seamless infrastructure.

The costs to the government will be immense. But they are "the best way to make our country more competitive," an official at the Ministry of Knowledge Economy's FEZ planning office said.

In a place where foreign money can be a touchy subject, the zones allow the government to "experiment" with liberalization without fueling fear about opening all sectors at once.

Eventually, the official said, "the whole country will be like an FEZ."

There are signs progress may be far slower than hoped.

Despite the government designating three new FEZs last year, the amount of FDI pledges received in the first quarter posted the biggest drop in six years as the financial crisis pounded the local stock market and currency and kept investors away.

Media reports have estimated FEZs are attracting as little as 2.5 percent of annual investment inflows.

The trophy Incheon zone had received just under $500 million of a pledged $6.6 billion in foreign direct investment as of the end of April, with Songdo developers Gale and POSCO accounting for a large share and some of the remainder tied to recession-hit firms such as General Motors.


There are concerns one of Songdo's crown jewels, an international school for children of foreign executives partnered with the U.S.'s prestigious Milton Academy, may not be able to open on schedule in September due to a shortage of students.

"There's serious doubt whether Songdo would be developed as originally planned ... given the current economic crisis," said Soojong Kwak, a research fellow at the Seoul-based Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI).

Kwak also said the sudden profusion of FEZs risked stoking "overheated competition." Both the Incheon and Yellow Sea Free Economic Zone, barely an hour apart by road, are marketing themselves as high-tech and logistics centres, as is the Busan-Jinhae FEZ on South Korea's east coast, and the Gwangyang Bay Area FEZ to the south.

Zones tout similar slogans -- Busan-Jinhae calls itself a "Northeast Asia business hub," Saemangeum-Gunsan in the southwest is the "hub of biz frontier in East Asia," and Gwangyang the "greatest logistics and business hub of Northeast Asia."

All lean heavily on their proximity to key markets such as China and Japan, a trait analysts say is not necessarily a plus.

"The advantage from locational arbitrage against China is close to zero," Kwak said, with South Korean zones bound to face tough competition from their Chinese counterparts.

Analysts also warn that fencing off certain areas for foreign investors, an approach that has gained traction globally since it was pioneered by China in the 1980s, risks masking the need for more comprehensive reforms to improve the business climate and reduce barriers to foreign ownership.

"The emphasis on special zones should not distract policymakers from these more important priorities," said Randall Jones, head of the Japan and Korea desk at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But the FDI campaign has won some converts. The Busan-Jinhae zone recently announced over $50 million in investment commitments from European and U.S. marine engineering firms, while the Incheon FEZ will receive $30 million this year from Berna Biotech Korea, a subsidiary of Netherlands-based biopharmaceutical company Crucell.

Berna Biotech CFO Maik Slijpen said the zone's generous tax and duty exemptions, proximity to Incheon International Airport and "international atmosphere" played a role in Berna's decision to invest there, though he also voiced concerns about developers' apparent focus on "prestigious but non-practical" projects.

But officials insist aiming high is the best way to take the zones forward.

"A well-designed, beautiful city will attract people from other countries," says IFEZ's Lee.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

BBC: South Korea's abandoned regional airports

Yangyang International is an airport looking for a reason to exist. Built on South Korea's east coast just seven years ago, you won't find any delays or long queues here. In fact, you won't find any passengers at all.

The initial vision could not have been more different.

Up to three million people a year were meant to throng the gleaming floors of the departure and arrival halls, built at a cost of almost $400m (£260m).

But last year an average of just 26 passengers a day came through the doors, vastly outnumbered by the 146 airport staff on hand to serve them.

In November the last commercial flight took off, and the terminal became what the Korean national press has dubbed a "ghost airport", an impressive monument to overestimated demand.

But it is not an isolated example.

Empty spaces

In fact, if there was to be an award for the world's quietest international airports, South Korea would surely be one of the favourites.

“ Politicians, in order to gain votes, promise their constituents an airport ”
Choi In-wook Korean Citizens Action Network
At the other end of the country from Yangyang, way down in the south-west, is the even newer Muan International Airport.

It opened less than two years ago, and although a handful of flights do at least land there, the terminal is struggling.

Built amidst the surrounding onion fields, it looks an unlikely spot for a thriving airport, and the scene inside is, once again, one of empty check-in desks and empty spaces.

Figures for last year show passenger levels at less than 3% of capacity.

"It might be better if it was used a bit more," said one passenger I spoke to, part of a group of Korean tourists preparing to catch one of only two flights leaving that day.

"But having said that," she added, "it is nice to come to an airport that isn't busy for a change."

Vanishing demand

As elsewhere, the project was meant to be a boost for the local economy, bringing in visitors, and connecting the local economy with the wider world.

But the region's farmers and fishermen may now wonder if it was a worthwhile investment.

South Korea has a total of 14 regional airports. Figures show that 11 of them lost money last year.

What should have been the 15th, another new east-coast airport, already more than 80% complete, has been suspended because of lack of demand.

And there is currently an ongoing debate about the wisdom of the plans to build yet one more, somewhere near the southern port city of Busan.

One reason for the lack of demand for air travel may be the simultaneous development of a high-speed rail link that now whisks travellers from one end of the country to the other in less than three hours, as well as the construction of a network of new motorways.

'Political logic'

Local airports have been built by "political rather than market logic", according to one newspaper.

The Korean Citizens' Action Network, an organisation that monitors government spending, claims that hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on terminals and runways that simply are not needed.

"Politicians, in order to gain votes, promise their constituents an airport," said spokesman Choi In-wook.

"Rather than checking the need thoroughly, the feasibility studies can be distorted to support the projects, and as a result there is an oversupply of airports in this country."

Could not the case be made, though, that some of today's under-used airports may turn out to have a long-term future?

"Maybe," he said. "If they honestly forecast that there would be large, initial losses for a long-term strategic benefit, then fair enough. But from the beginning the feasibility reports are inaccurate, so no one knows the true prospects."

Both the government and the Korea Airports Corporation, the body that manages the regional airports, refused the BBC's request for an interview.

There are those, like the staff at Yangyang airport, who do indeed believe that they may still find a profitable future for their terminal.

But it is the views of the passengers that really matter - and for now, they are voting with their feet.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Seoul International Book Fair launches "The Future of Less"

The Seoul International Book Fair (SIBF), the country's biggest annual publishing event for industry insiders and the public, will be held at COEX in southern Seoul from May 13 to 17.

Under the slogan of "Start Over Again With a Book,'' this year's fair focuses on the universal value of the tomes, which are now spiraling ever more into other domains, such as films and other art forms.

"In various cultural fields, the importance of storytelling is being highlighted. The fair will raise the awareness on how books play a key role in incorporating the concept of the storytelling,'' Baek Sok-Ghee, president of the Korean Publishers Association, said.

About 836 publishers from 21 countries including Korea will participate in the event.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

South Korean plans for US$20 billion makeover of the U.S. Army base in Yongsan

American architect Daniel Libeskind, the master planner for the World Trade Center site, has won a design competition to turn the center of the South Korean capital into an international business district.

Mr. Libeskind's firm announced late Tuesday in New York that it had been chosen as master planner for the $20 billion project, which will include a cluster of skyscrapers in residential, office and retail neighborhoods along the Han River. It will also contain cultural and educational facilities and rapid transportation systems.

This illustrated image shows Studio Daniel Libeskind's winning design for Seoul's Yongsan International Business District.

The site is near the current South Korean headquarters for the U.S. military, which is expected to move to a new base south of Seoul by 2012. The former military grounds are to be turned into a Central Park-like attraction as part of the city's long-overdue facelift.

"The idea is to create a 21st Century destination that is at once transformative, vibrant, sustainable and diverse," Mr. Libeskind said in a statement. "I wanted to make each form, each place, each neighborhood as varied and distinctive as possible."

Studio Daniel Libeskind was on a shortlist of five top firms competing for the project. The competitors also included U.S.-based firms Asymptote Architecture and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, along with Britain's Foster and Partners.

The project is slated to break ground in 2011 and be completed by 2016.

The developer is a consortium led by the state-run Korea Railroad Corp. The project includes funding from the Samsung Group and the National Pension Service.

More pictures available here:


Cars hold up South Korean trade deal

All shined up with nowhere to go, hundreds of new Hyundai vehicles languish on the docks of one of the world's largest auto factory complexes.

Touring the piers, company spokesman Oles Gadacz says twice as many cars are awaiting a quick trip aboard nearby transport ships headed for the U.S. and Europe compared with a couple years ago. Many of them are SUVs, such as the Veracruz or Santa Fe, that the factory has temporarily stopped producing because there isn't enough demand right now in the U.S.

The troubles in Ulsan underscore how the auto industry's problems are global. But until business improves, South Korean trade officials have a proposal they say could jump-start trade that has already fallen 30% or more: a free trade agreement with the U.S. that they argue is mutually beneficial.

"This is a win-win for both countries," Gadacz says. "We invite the competition."

FIND MORE STORIES IN: United States Washington Barack Obama Europe Canada Mexico South Korea General Motors Chrysler LLC Seoul Colombia Panama United Auto Workers Korea Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce Ford Motor Company Hyundai National Association of Manufacturers Daewoo Ulsan Kia Motors United States International Trade Commission North American Free Trade Agreement
A proposed U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement was hammered out in 2007 by the Bush administration. The deal could boost U.S. exports to South Korea by at least $9.7 billion a year and increase South Korean imports by $6.4 billion or more, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated at the time. The proposed pact recently passed muster with a South Korean parliamentary committee and awaits action in the U.S. Congress. Similar free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia are on deck as well.

Despite harsh campaign rhetoric last year, especially about the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk indicated as recently as April that they are open to free trade deals — with likely modifications.

While South Korea's is potentially the biggest of the three — it is America's seventh-largest trading partner — it's also the thorniest. Smoothing the ability of American firms to sell in South Korea could benefit industries ranging from beef to pharmaceuticals and aircraft. But the holdup centers on the product for which Hyundai is best known: all those cars.

Hyundai on a tear in U.S.

American auto interests have lined up against the proposed trade pact. Ford, Chrysler and the United Auto Workers are opposed. General Motors, which owns South Korean automaker Daewoo, has largely steered clear of the debate.

Although the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea was only about $13.3 billion last year, about 80% of the shortfall involved autos, says Mike Moran, a Ford spokesman.

South Korea, he says, is "the most closed market in the world" for foreign cars, and not all the barriers involve tariffs. Only about 1% of the cars sold in South Korea are American made.

In the U.S., Hyundai is on a tear. Though new cars are stacking up in Ulsan, auto sales were off only about 3.6% in the U.S. for Hyundai and sister brand Kia for the year through April. Meanwhile, sales of all brands foreign and domestic were down 37.4%, Autodata reports. As a result, Hyundai and Kia are picking up market share.

Under a free trade agreement, the U.S. would drop its 2.5% tariff on auto imports from South Korea. In turn, South Korea would phase out its 8% levy on American cars.

The problem, however, is that South Korea is a much smaller market — and American cars suffer from an image problem. "Popularity is very low," say Kyung-Tae Lee, president of the Institute for International Trade in Seoul. "They say craftsmanship is much better (on) Japanese and European (cars) than American."

If not U.S., Europe?

The agreement is not without controversy in South Korea, too. Family farmers worry about importing more U.S. beef. Hyundai's autoworkers union is also opposed.

Yet, Korean trade officials argue that the deal should not be held up. When it comes to autos, the deal "should not be held hostage by just one sector," says Hye-min Lee, a deputy government minister for trade issues.

Others warn that if the U.S. stalls, the South Koreans may sign a free trade pact with the Europeans. "We will lose," says Tami Overby, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

Getting the agreement moving likely will involve further negotiation on automotive issues.

William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington, says he thinks a deal with South Korea, after Panama and Colombia, "will get taken care of eventually."

But Frank Vargo, vice president for international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, also in Washington, says, "We recognize it's not going to go anywhere until something happens on cars."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Korean women and the LPGA

I’m starting a conversation with the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA - about how it can continue to serve its Korean player members, who now hold a remarkable 27 of the top 85 slots on the top money list (that’s almost a third), and 6 of the top 15. I can across this article, “Why Korean golfers are dominating LPGA Tour” from June 2007 ( The author notes:

“It begins and ends with parenting: Korean parents raise their kids a little differently than American parents do. Okay, a lot differently. What Americans consider "pushing" their kids, Koreans consider right and proper. The more freestyle approach used by American parents—let kids have time to be kids— Koreans consider borderline irresponsible. Leaving children to make their own decisions would be disastrous. Every moment of time is accounted for: children are in school, in an after-school tutoring program, or in a sports activity until it's time to go to bed and start all over again the next day. Yes, it's hard, but it's a competitive world out there and the role of the parent is to teach the child to be successful in it. Westerners in general would view the pressures placed on Korean children to be inappropriate. We like our children to be "well-rounded." Korean parents, meanwhile, don't fret over lost childhoods. Children are expected to do their share to help their family—and their country—succeed.”

One comment from a reader asked, “If this is true, why aren’t Korean men dominating the PGA?”

One thought might be that the men’s tour is still a lot about power and distance and Korean men are a disadvantage physically compared to larger, generally, stronger American, European, and Australian golfers.

Women’s golf obviously has a power / distance component, but accuracy is still – pardon the pun – the driving force to success on the LPGA tour. Accuracy can be increased with diligent practice and the quote above sounds like Koreans girls are out-practicing their western counterparts. ◦

Sunday, May 10, 2009

North-South Korean marriages: Matchmaker helps unify divided peninsula

As a North Korean defector on the hunt for a husband in Seoul, Choi Young-hee was unlucky in love.

Working days as a food vendor, she went on blind dates with men more wily and Westernized than their conservative northern counterparts, perfectionists who often boorishly asked if she could set them up with her North Korean girlfriends.

So in 2005, a deflated Choi began playing professional matchmaker, and soon found she was a better bridesmaid than a bride.

Four years later she has brought together 360 couples, in her own small way accomplishing what all the highfalutin diplomacy could not: uniting a hopelessly divided Korean peninsula through cross-cultural marriages.

Forget about all the non-romantic static coming out of North Korea. This self-proclaimed Cupid from Pyongyang means business.

Her company, South Korean Man-North Korean Woman Marriage Consulting, is a play off a proverb that says South Korea is home to good-looking men and North Korea the domain of ravishingly beautiful women.

Choi, an energetic, full-figured 43-year-old, handicaps eligible men and women like a racetrack veteran.

South Korean men are charmers, full of sweet talk, she says. But some overdo the cheesy compliments. Yet even at their worst, she says, they make better mates than North Korean men.

"North Koreans are hard men of few words," she says. "They don't have as much consideration for a woman."

Some South Korean men have decided they want North Korean wives, who favor more traditional values. In many cases the men's parents were displaced from the North during the Korean War, and they relate more to the culture there.

North Korean women also are seen as exotic yet still Korean. "Many men don't want an international marriage," Choi says. "And then the idea of marrying a North Korean strikes them."

More than half the nearly 15,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea are women, according to government statistics. In 2007, South Korea revised a law to enable North Korean defectors to divorce the spouses they left behind.

Choi knows plenty about North Korean men -- she used to be married to one, but she left the marriage when she and her daughter defected in 2002.

Her list of eligible candidates numbers about 100 South Korean men and 370 North Korean women. Her services are free to women from the North, a gesture Choi makes out of camaraderie.

Men pay roughly $1,900 a year for a guaranteed six dates.

But not all North-South unions are made in heaven.

One woman said she needed money to bring her brother across the border. When her date gave her the cash, she vanished.

But Choi, a believer in marriage, says the risks are worth it. "Nothing is more important for us than marriage to settle down in South Korea," she says. "It is a turning point to start a new life."

Yet even with all her success, Choi isn't sure she wants to restart the search for her own mate.

"My friends tell me, 'Hey, you go find someone for yourself first. Stop hooking up others,' " Choi says. "But as I say to my staff, I probably shouldn't go out with clients.

"There is a saying that the monk cannot shave his own head.",0,3303465.story


Friday, May 08, 2009

Reforming the Chinese Script

For better or worse, Mao Zedong usually came out on top, whether facing Japanese invaders, nationalist warlords or Communist Party rivals. But for all his success in overturning traditional values and institutions, the founder of modern China came up short in his desire to convert written Chinese from its character-based system to an alphabet. Intellectuals resisted fiercely, some out of the belief that China’s writing system was superior to any other, and unified a land of many dialects far better than a phonetic system, others on simple sentimental grounds.

Many claimed it could not be done, despite the examples of Korea, which managed the trick in the 15th century, and Vietnam which, like China, has a tonal language with many homonyms but switched successfully to an alphabetic system. In the end Mao settled on a halfway step: cutting the number of strokes in some Chinese characters (from 18 to four in the case of feng, which means “abundant”, and is shown above). This set China apart from Hong Kong, Taiwan and most overseas communities. Many purists thought simplifying characters as appalling as eliminating them.

That fierce debate is now being rekindled with the government’s announcement of plans to issue later this year a new list of character modifications, aimed mainly at correcting certain “oversimplifications” undertaken in the past. Some characters will have more strokes added and thus be brought closer to their earlier, more complicated forms. But officials insist the move does not mark the start of a campaign to scrap simplified characters. China, they say, need not move back toward the traditional forms, nor further along the path of simplification. It simply needs to “standardise” things.

This will disappoint Pan Qinglin, a member of the consultative committee that advises China’s government. In March he submitted a proposal to the government calling for a return within ten years to the greater expressiveness and “artistic quality” of the traditional script. Others, however, will be pleased, including the internet commentator who recently compared reviving traditional characters to “asking women to revive the practice of foot-binding”.

Other arguments focus less on deep issues of cultural identity than on practical concerns, such as how hard the new forms will be to learn, how much it will cost to convert signs, replace textbooks and adapt software, and whether the government will pay for the changes. Mao famously argued that “revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture”. It might, however, be reforming orthography.


Calling Kim Jong Il's bluff

Even if North Korea refuses to rejoin six-party talks, they can still have a useful function.

Nuclear blackmail is an old trick of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s 68-year-old dictator, learnt at the knee of his father, Kim Il Sung. Since April 5th, and the launching of what North Korea said was a satellite but the rest of the world reckons was a failed missile, he has been at it again. North Korea expelled United Nations inspectors from its ageing reactor complex at Yongbyon and now declares itself no longer bound by the six-party process involving South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States that was meant to lead to abandonment of its nuclear-weapons programmes, in return for aid and respect. After days of wrangling over the launch, the UN Security Council delivered no more than a light knuckle-rapping.

Yet North Korea professes to be insulted. It threatens to rebuild Yongbyon and start making weapons-grade plutonium again. This week, after its first talks with the South in more than a year farcically broke down after just 22 minutes, it accused the South of “a vicious criminal act”: the shifting of a border post. The chances of some sort of armed skirmish have risen.

So far, so consistent with North Korea’s traditional belligerence. Back in 1994 Bill Clinton promised aid and two light-water civilian reactors in return for closing Yongbyon, yet Mr Kim started new nuclear work. Promising to be less gullible, George Bush listed North Korea in his “axis of evil”. Mr Kim merely redoubled his nuclear efforts, exploding a device inside a mountain in October 2006, despite a 2005 agreement to denuclearise. Mr Bush’s envoys suggested more talks. Having already sold Yongbyon twice, to both Mr Clinton and Mr Bush, Mr Kim presumably intends to sell it a third time, to Barack Obama.

Yet if the aim was to engage Mr Obama on Mr Kim’s terms, it has backfired. That is partly because the launch failed, despite North Korea’s claims that its satellite is beaming back chirpy revolutionary songs. This is its third long-distance missile test; all flops. Though North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles threaten South Korea and Japan, it is far from having a deterrent to any American nuclear attack. Its only nuclear explosion was thought a damp squib. Miniaturising nuclear warheads is hard, and the North has enough plutonium for just ten or so nuclear devices. Reprocessing the remaining spent fuel rods at Yongbyon would give it one more bomb. In this sense only, more nuclear tests would actually help, by using up what plutonium is left.

So North Korea remains a rogue state with an alarming nuclear programme rather than being a nuclear power in its own right. Mr Obama’s North Korean policy is unformulated, and his foreign-policy and security team incomplete. But the clearer the shortcomings of the North’s nuclear programmes, the less Mr Obama will be inclined to rush like his predecessor into deals that quickly unravel. That will reassure South Korea and Japan, which despaired that Mr Bush’s negotiations sometimes allowed North Korea to drive a wedge between America and its allies.

Mr Kim’s belligerence has backfired in political terms too. In his inaugural address, Mr Obama said he would extend a hand to those willing to unclench their fist. He faces criticism at home for reaching out to Iran and for greeting Hugo Ch├ívez, Venezuela’s strongman. It would be too much of a gift to hardline Republicans if he also extended his hand to Mr Kim’s clenched one. So the grand bilateral bargain that the Dear Leader has long wanted—aid, full recognition and security guarantees in return for giving up his box of nuclear tricks—remains as remote as ever. The North’s oppressed and impoverished people are the victims.

What happens next depends in part on China, North Korea’s ally. At the recent Bo’ao Forum, China’s answer to Davos, on Hainan island, a string of Chinese policymakers shunned Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that China should “keep a cool head, maintain a low profile and never take the lead”, arguing instead for what amounted to a new world order, centred in Asia (read China). Some Western commentators divine a profound shift as China bids for the role of global hegemon.

If this claim can be tested anywhere, it is presumably in the six-party process, which China hosts. Yet here the claim falls short, and not only because China struggles to influence its small neighbour. China had as much reason as anyone, or more, for falling in with international condemnation of the rocket launch, as it did after North Korea’s nuclear test. The provocation only raises the odds that America, Japan and South Korea will develop anti-missile defences that undermine China’s own deterrence. Worse, an unrestrained North Korea might conceivably push Japan into going nuclear, as Japanese hawks are once again suggesting. Either path would mean a new regional security order even less of China’s making than the current one.

Five can party, too
So it is in China’s interests that the six-party talks continue, as they should: even without the North, their main object. This would signal that no one is in a hurry to re-engage with North Korea solely on its terms, but that the door is still open. More important, remaining members have much to get on with. The recent brouhaha may speak of internal tensions in North Korea. After a presumed stroke last year, Mr Kim looks physically half the man he used to be. For lack of any official pronouncements, rumours swirl about his succession.

The best outcome for most North Koreans must presumably be for the Kim regime to crumble, despite the risks that might follow, including huge refugee flows, civil war and quantities of weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands. Yet contingency planning done collectively by the North’s neighbours and the United States is almost nil. Here is a good purpose for the six-party forum. China, as a close neighbour, would be hugely affected by turmoil in North Korea. It has every reason to lead efforts in planning for it.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

How to boost Korea's brand

According to a new book, Korea's national brand is in dire need of a boost.

Professor Keith Dinnie of the Japan campus at Temple University recently gave a seminar at Yonsei University in Seoul to promote the Korean translation of his book "Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice (2008)."

In the book, the professor of business administration analyses the unique nature of Korea's weak national brand among other developed nations despite a strong economy boasting several internationally lauded corporations such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. The translation of the book into Korean was organized by the Korea Foundation.

Dinnie believes the lack of interest in nation branding by the preceding administrations were the key cause of Korea's dismal visibility on the global stage.

Thanks to the current Lee Myung-bak government's proactive role in nation branding, he feels Korea will become more internationally recognized.

"The current administration's efforts to boost Korea's brand is positive. It's great that the president is taking a personal interest in nation branding," he said.

"This is very important and also quite unusual because in many countries the political leader either doesn't understand nation branding or just doesn't like the idea of it or has no enthusiasm. Also helping is the fact the current president has a business background. His background in business gives him an understanding of what you need to do in a nation branding campaign."

Dinnie feels that sustaining this level of government enthusiasm is vital to reshape Korea as a country that can stand toe to toe with other developed countries.

"I think the slogans 'Dynamic Korea' and 'Sparkling Korea' have been quite effective. They are appropriate for Korea because it is in fact a dynamic country, it is sparkling and full of life and vitality," he said, "but what I would say is that it's not enough just to have a slogan."

"You might need more than one slogan, for example a tourism slogan, an export promotion slogan or an investment slogan and in fact I think in the future countries will probably stop using a singular phrase because it's very difficult - particularly if it's just two words- to cover an entire nation."

Though the current administration has the right idea in implementing various campaigns to boost the country's global profile, those guiding the nation are sorely lacking in new ideas and more importantly, fresh perspectives from a younger, more cosmopolitan political contingent.

"I don't think it's the case of changing the guard but I think it's the case of adding to the guard. You can inject new blood while the old regime is still there and you can certainly engage with other people who have new ideas and that is actually very important," he said.

Some of the factors Dinnie emphasizes in the successful re-tooling of Korea's brand image are factors the country has already established itself such as technology, manufacturing, and pop culture throughout Asia.

The strategic improvements he calls for are as follows: to promote Taekwondo as an explicitly Korean martial art as opposed to an East Asian art form; sending volunteers to aid other countries afflicted by either natural disasters or civil unrest;

Granting global scholarships to the less privileged around the world; increasing external aid; reinforcing government support of culture and tourism; and improving treatment and benefits for foreigners and multicultural families residing in Korea.

But the most important element to the branding of any nation is food, Dinnie said.

Cuisine can be a powerful agent reshaping public perception.

"Almost every country in the world really should focus on promoting their food culture," he said. "Countries should be more strategic in using the network of restaurants around the world as an opportunity to promote tourism.

"You go to a restaurant, enjoy the food and you see a travel brochure of the country and you might not necessarily pack a suitcase and fly there right away, but you'll probably keep it in mind the next time you're planning a trip abroad."

He uses Malaysia and Thailand as prime examples of countries that have parlayed its cuisine to boost awareness and their national brand. Both the Malaysian and Thai governments have vigorously promoted their nation's cuisine.

The Malaysian government, for example, operates restaurants in Tokyo and London. In 2001, the Thai government announced its involvement in an effort to ensure that Thai food sold around the world is genuine.

Dinnie was initially opposed to the idea of nation branding when he was a student at the Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

"At first I was opposed to the idea of a nation being branded. I thought that was a terrible notion, but I came to understand as I did more research, nation branding is important because it is a way to avoid such lazy caricatures and stereotypes," he said.

"And ethically I think it is a good thing and also economically it can have a positive effect. If your country has a positive reputation that will surely be reflected in your economy."

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Zara's "fast fashion" celebrates one-year anniversary in Seoul

On a sunny day last week, Han Jin-hee, 26, strolled down the streets of Myeong-dong, central Seoul, in a lighthearted mood. She had just come out from the clothing store Zara, after buying a dozen articles of clothing, which cost her a total of less than 150,000 won ($117).

“Fashions today change rapidly,” she said. “So instead of shopping for costly items, I buy a variety of cheaper pieces at Zara.” Han said she shops at the Spain-based retailer in Seoul at least twice every month.

She’s not alone. With constantly changing trends in an economy in decline, shoppers are increasingly turning to buying low-priced, mass-produced clothes from “fast fashion” labels, such as Zara, Mango, Uniqlo and Forever 21.

Relatively new to Seoul, the market is penetrating the local fashion industry, experts say. Such clothes are referred to as SPA, short for specialty retailer of private-label apparel. Such companies offer clothing at a low price by cutting margins on production, retail and distribution.

“Fast fashion labels are appealing to consumers growing more trend-conscious,” says Lee Ye-jin, a fashion retailer. “They shop for items that they can wear short-term at a low price.”

Industry experts predict that fast fashion labels in Korea will take a greater market share - up to 6 trillion won - of the total 30 trillion won local market.

Zara, which first opened a year ago in Myeong-dong and COEX, southern Seoul, now has seven branches in Korea including one that opened Monday in Busan. Three more branches are set to open in Gwangju, Daejeon and Suwon this year. Sweden’s H&M is also coming to Myeong-dong in July.

Japan’s Uniqlo store in Myeong-dong, which arrived here in 2007, has steady monthly sales of up to 1.2 billion won. The brand is planning on opening 10 to 15 new stores this year. Though all Mango stores closed early this year due to decrease in sales, Cheil Industries reopened the store last month in Myeong-dong, hoping for a leap in sales.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

South Korean sees glimmer of hope in unlikely dream

Call Lee Kwan-young a South Korean Don Quixote -- he's chasing an unlikely dream of having a faraway U.S. president and his wife wear jewelry he crafted specially for them.

Some people may be laughing, but Lee isn't listening.

42-year-old amateur artist says he became inspired by President Obama's message of hope when he uttered the word three times in his inauguration speech.

In a burst of inspiration, Lee thought: Why not turn Obama's "hope" into a permanent commemoration of that spirit?

Lee consulted with sound experts and art designers to create a configuration of Obama's voice waves when he said the word.

The resulting design slightly resembles a graphic representation of seismic waves.

The set, which Lee has titled Obama's Hope, includes a diamond- and pearl-studded necklace, earrings and a brooch for First Lady Michelle Obama; and a set of cuff links and a necktie pin for the president.

For Lee, a bespectacled man with wavy black hair, the set is a heartfelt thing of beauty -- not that he's had much encouragement.

Even in his own country, offering gifts to the president requires much bureaucratic red tape and lots of time.

Why, many asked, would a president halfway around the world accept a gift from a total stranger in a strange land? "My friends have told me that I'm not realistic," said Lee, a public relations officer for a local company.

He wanted the Obamas to wear the jewelry on the night of the president's 100th day in office. But Lee knew he had only a few weeks to achieve such an unlikely goal.

First, he contacted the United States Embassy in Seoul to see if officials there could serve as a conduit to the president. Don't call us, we'll call you, was the response.

As the days went by, Lee began working some of his limited social channels, asking friends and business associates to intervene on his behalf with both U.S. officials and the South Korean Embassy in Washington.

Then Lee's fledgling efforts at international diplomacy began to show a ray of hope -- to everyone's surprise but his.

Emissaries whispered that the Americans were considering the idea. Then a Seoul newspaper ran a story on Lee's quest, saying that the U.S. Embassy was "showing a positive reaction."

This week, Lee has been invited to an art reception hosted by U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens in Seoul. Officials sent word that they want him to bring his jewelry to the event.

But Lee's quest is no slam dunk.

"We are still in contact with Washington," said Aaron Tarver, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. "We will have to wait and see for the next step."

Lee says he has used voice-imprint design to make jewelry on two other occasions: He created a brooch using the iconic sentence from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. He later designed a necklace using former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's voice waves saying "Live Earth."

But he never tried to reach the King family or Gore with his work. With the Obama collection, he wants the subjects of his inspiration to wear the final product.

Lee used part of his retirement fund to pay for the set, which he says cost $7,500. For three months, he kept his project a secret from colleagues and even his wife and two children.

"I haven't made any jewels on my wife's behalf," he said. "She feels a bit jealous now."

Lee realizes that it is too late for the Obamas to receive his gift in time for the 100th day in office.

But he says he hopes the famous couple will wear his jewelry soon as a symbol that South Koreans and people around the world are rooting for the U.S. president's success.

If he doesn't soon see results with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Lee hints of a last-ditch strategy to realize his dream:

He says he's going to send the set directly the White House, by overnight mail.,0,1484483.story?track=rss

Friday, May 01, 2009

Video: Incheon FEZ