Tag Archives: Korea

Occupy South Korea: A Ghost Camp

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On my first day in South Korea while wondering around Seoul looking for any sign of activism (which tends to be what I do when I travel!) I came across what I can only assume is Occupy South Korea. I cannot be sure as there was no one around to ask but two police officers who motioned for me not to take photos. I saw a handful of tents that appeared as if they were being used, but no one was in them. I was able to casually snap a few pictures, but when I asked if I could read the sign that described their struggle and the struggle of the 99% in Korea one of the officers made a gesture to put my camera away. I told him I just wanted to read the sign and he let me get a peek. Unfortunately, the sign was obscured behind a chair and I dared not move it. I then continued to casually wander around the area trying to see if anyone would emerge from a tent, but no one did, so I continued on my way. 

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Occupy South Korea seemed to be a ghost encampment, which was almost stranger than no encampment at all. Was everyone at work? Was the camp evicted and the tents being held (in their place) as evidence? Was it a symbolic camp? Unfortunately, I was not going to find out, at least not then.

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Earlier in the day the woman who was working at the front desk of my guesthouse indicated that she studied environmental science, so I felt comfortable asking her if there was any local activism going on, to which she replied, “yes, but freedom of speech is severely restricted here.” She said that there are often small protests around the city, but they are quickly stopped. 
So, now I have more questions than answers, but ultimately seeing a grouping of tents (even empty ones) holding space in public, brought me an amazing amount of comfort and excitement and made me feel at home. I just hope that the South Koreans, like the rest of the activists in the world working within this movement, are able to keep moving forward in the face of an incredible uphill battle and find comfort and hope in knowing they are not alone.

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The “River” Seoul

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Cheonggyecheon Stream

On my first day in Korea it came as no surprise to me that the county is facing the same environmental, social and political problems as most of the rest of the world and like much of the world the average citizen is comfortable enough to remain asleep to the issues.

I was able to get a glimpse into these issues from the woman who was working the front desk at my guesthouse in Seoul. It turned out she was studying environmental science at University and was familiar with Portland because of our “green” and “sustainably” initiatives (she actually used the ironic air quotations to indicate her understanding that these are loaded terms). As I was getting ready for my day and asking her what I should do, she pointed out the normal tourist things and then said, “but if you are interested in environmental stuff, you should really go check out Seoul’s “stream””.

She went on to tell me how in Feng Shui it’s important that palaces be built with the mountains behind them and a river in front. The main palace in Seoul was built with this in mind hundreds of years ago, but due to development and over use of water, the river that had once flowed in front had since dried up. She said that in a grand political move to garner public support and help his construction buddies, the then Mayor of Seoul (and now president of Korea) decided to bring the river back to life.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, this was not a project to restore an ecosystem and little environmental considerations were taken into account. This rivers new life was more like life-support rather than being healed. The river bed was paved over and water was pumped in from a nearby river in order for it to flow. Wildlife and fish were introduced, but nothing survived for long as it was not an appropriate habitat. She told me that people in this city are so desperate for any “green space” that there was mass acceptance for the project and now across the country there are similar plans to implement these artificial rivers. She said that most people in Korea are ignorant to the issues and don’t understand what’s going on. Which is a sentiment I understand from working on similar problems back home.

While listening to her lament about corrupt politicians, feel-good environmental projects and a citizenry that is more wrapped up in consumerism than dealing with real issues, it reminded me how connected we really are and how until we develop radical new social and political systems, our struggles will be mostly uphill battles. The hydrological cycle is just one ecological system necessary to sustain life and a fake river does nothing to restore this system, but does a good job at making people forget that there was a problem in the first place. Unfortunately, the planets ability to sustain life includes humanity and if we forget this we have no one blame but ourselves and it will be our future generations that will ultimately pay the price.