Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Groove Korea

Been a little while since I posted. I've been busy and (insert laziness quip here). I did, however, manage to do a fair bit of writing for Groove Korea this month. I really enjoyed interviewing both Michael Breen and Roxana Manouchehri. I also wrote an article on Texas Holdem and I reviewed a book. The pic attached is one of Roxanna's paintings.

Eye on an Artist

Roxana Manouchehri

By: Adam Walsh

Even though Roxana Manouchehri started drawing at the age of twelve, she went to a Mathematics and Physics High School in her home city of Tehran. When asked why such a different educational beginning for an artist she says simply “I did not think it could be a job. I wanted to be an architect.” On paper being an architect makes sense if you look at Roxana’s family; her older sister is a doctor, while her younger sister is an engineer. It was at the age of eighteen when she decided that art could be much more than a hobby simply for fun. How did her family take the news of losing a potential architect for a daughter? “My parents were very encouraging” she smiles and explains how great the family support was for her art.

Roxana earned both her BA and MA in Painting from the Art University of Tehran. During her studies, she taught painting and drawing to children, while also finding some work as an illustrator of children’s books. Upon graduation, she continued to teach at a Fine Arts College. Does she miss teaching? Not really, “I wouldn’t mind twice a week” she says. It did, however, help her make ends meet while trying to sell her art back in Iran. In the difficult world that is being a foreign artist in Korea it would be a valuable safety net that isn’t afforded due to visa restrictions.

In April of 2007, Roxana was awarded a six-month fellowship program at the National Art Studio in Chang-dong Seoul. Why Korea? Like so many other foreigners who end up here, Roxana is no different. “I never actually thought about Korea until the fellowship opportunity came up.” Her old studio in Chang-dong is now featured in one of her paintings titled “This is My Room, This is My Studio.” To imagine an artist’s studio, you’d think there would be a creative energy, something in the space that would act as a catalyst for inspiration. Roxana’s studio was in fact the opposite of that. With a slight roll of the eyes she explains that her studio was “unfriendly”, a white plain empty space that from her painting looks like anything but a studio. To a lesser creative soul, this would be a hindrance, not to Roxana. She painted the space adding Persian miniature boxes and written inside, in an almost “The Shining” manner of explanation, the Farsi says:”This is my room. This is my studio.” over and over again. Persian miniatures traditionally include a story or a poem and illustrations were made from the text written within the boxes.

When asked about her inspiration for her art, Roxana replies that “It’s easier now than ten years ago. I know what I want to do now. In the beginning it was what should I paint? What should I do?” Today she has a period concept in mind and has to search less in order to put paint onto canvass. Even when she’s not in a creative mood her mind is always working. Her Korean period and her art in general can be described using a word that is generally overused by Koreans but rather fitting in this case, fusion. She combines nostalgic feelings of ancestors with settings in the contemporary world that evoke curiosity surrounding Persian heritage combined with a splashed sense of irony. Lately Roxana has been drawing a lot of inspiration from Korean women. When she first arrived in Korea, she felt that Korean girls cared too much about their appearance but now she’s used to it and furthermore is able to create art from what she has observed. She laughs remarking how she herself has changed during her stay “At first I hated the shiny high heels that Korean girls wear but now I own a bunch of pairs myself.” Roxana loves the mixing of cultures in her art and is currently experimenting with painting traditional Korean houses, along with Korean girls wearing hijabs. She’s also been juxtaposing Korean women in common day Seoul fashion with images of Muslim women.

Can her art be considered controversial? It depends on who views it. Some of her more experimental art would definitely offend those who are not open-minded to freedom of expression. Her work depicting Mosques with non-Muslims could be risky depending on where the works are shown. “I don’t want to end up like Salman Rushdie” she jokes. “I should be careful but I cannot sensor my mind. If I was like Andy Warhol I could do whatever I like.” she continues. She is also concerned about offending Korean pride because of how she has exaggerated the style and appearances of Korean women. She realizes that Koreans aren’t a great bunch for laughing at themselves and feels that some people may not like her new work due to that fact.

Unlike the many teachers who work in Korea, Roxana unfortunately doesn’t have a guaranteed clientele. Her paycheck is dependent upon art aficionados who the world over are a rather picky lot. Her recent experience at the Korean International Art Fair (KIAF) that ran during late September in COEX left her a little disappointed. When she was first invited to be one of nine young artists to give a presentation and exhibit one of their works, Roxana obviously jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately her painting received very little attention because of its location (away from the others in a coffee shop) and after the pre-arranged 20-minute presentation of her artwork, she was unable to meet any collectors or gallery people. She hopes that in the future KIAF irons out this year’s difficulties in order to better suit the artists showcasing their work. In addition, Roxana finds that Korea’s art scene is a little too trend oriented and feels that it needs to go its own way based on actual talent instead of what is in style.

Roxana stayed in Korea because, like so many more foreigners here, she met her now husband. Also, she had never lived away from her home for an extended period of time and felt that Korea would be good for her. Had it not been for her husband’s job, who knows where she would be right now? Fortunately, she’s managed to continue on with her art, albeit by having to transform part of their apartment into her new studio. In five years time, she sees herself in Europe, a step which she says “is very important for me as an artist.” Combining the Qajar period women with castles in Ireland is a thought that excites her. For now though, she’s here in Seoul with a group showing planned at the Cha gallery in January, 2009 and with any luck she’ll find a sponsor for a solo exhibition shortly thereafter.

Her homepage is:

What if He’s a Dead Dear Leader?

By: Adam Walsh

Rumors regarding the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il have been circulating since the summer. The gossip led to conjecture as to what would occur in the event of his death and furthermore, who would be the future ruler of the Hermit Kingdom. Given South Korea’s history with the North, not to mention proximity, it is difficult not to speculate about what may or may not be happening north of the border. Looking to sort out the rumors and get some insight, Groove Korea sat down with former journalist and author Michael Breen. Having not only worked in South Korea for 25 years, he’s also the author of The Koreans (1999) and Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader (2004). He currently writes a weekly column for the Korea Times and is the chairman of the public relations firm Insight Communications in Seoul.

I was wondering what the role of Kim Jong-il is as a parental figure for North Korea? Is he indeed viewed that way?

I think so. It’s the role that he tries to play. It’s the role his father played. What’s interesting about it – and this is something that Brian Myers an expert on North Korea, pointed out recently – Kim Jong-il takes more of a mother role than a father role. Your classic dictator is a father type figure; the lash driving the people onwards and being brutal when they get out of step. The Kim Jong-il role and certainly what gets emphasized in the propaganda is the warm hearted care for the people. So it is a parental role but it’s a very motherly one. That doesn’t mean it’s benevolent but it does explain why there’s a lot more emphasis on the bosom of the leader than on the toe up your ass.

With the recent reports of he’s sick he’s not sick, maybe it was heart trouble…how much stock did you put into those reports when they first started surfacing?

I assumed that there was something happening. If there were nothing happening it would become apparent relatively quickly. You hear bits and pieces that back that up. Like, Kim Jong-il’s grandson studies in China and apparently told his classmates that granddad was sick and so on and so forth. My guess is that he had a stroke and by the sound of it there’s some partial incapacity. I don’t spend too much energy on figuring out what because in the end you’re all quoting each other. You just have to wait. What’s interesting about it is that it suddenly made everybody think about the succession and what’s going to happen to North Korea after him. Before we – and by “we” I mean the outside world – had considered that as a theoretical question. Now it seems a bit more practical. And I would imagine that the North Korean leadership and Kim Jong-il himself are probably thinking more about it in the practical way. But this is all such a guessing game that you end up wondering what’s the point? If all they’re prepared to tell us is something nebulous, what is the point in wasting our time?

Speaking of succession, there’s no real heir apparent waiting to step in. He (Kim Jong-il) was groomed by his father, what would it take for a smooth or keep the status quo succession?

The first condition would be a family member, one of the sons, or his half brother, or his sister or his brother in law or his daughter. The second condition , because whoever that was would not have the authority, would need to be recognition by those in power that it was in their interest to rally around such a figure. Then a willingness of the people in power to continue to be ruthless with any opposition.

In the event it does collapse, what is South Korea’s contingency plan?

I suspect that there’s a document somewhere gathering dust. But those sorts of things can be whipped up pretty quickly and I think there are probably a number people who have given it some thought over the years. Their number one concern would be containment, to make sure that there wasn’t spillover into South Korea or thousands of refugees suddenly appearing on the border. Then what do you do? Shoot them? Turn them back? The second thing would be to manage the concern that a third country, particularly China, would take control in some way or put in their own person. But the main South Korean concern is chaos and its economic and social consequences here. So that’s why for so many years South Koreans have been interested in the status quo being maintained, as horrible as it sounds given the nature of the regime. From the South Korean point of view, it’s always been better that reform happen under the dictator.

Do you think that steps such as the Kaesong Industrial Park, the Mount Kumgang tours and exploratory mining going on in the North are all part of a greater plan in the event of a collapse?

These projects are a consequence of the engagement policy that came in ten years ago. Initially, the thinking behind engagement was rather starry eyed. There is a liberal notion that if we’re nice to bad people they’ll be nice back and that the reason they’re so beastly is because we’re so horrible to them”. That’s a fantasy, but a common one, particularly among decent people. But the other aspect of engagement is more pragmatic. If you lock people down in talks and you’ve got trade going and you’ve got mutual interests that brings you much farther from conflict. There’s also an argument, which I like, that engagement is the best way to bring them down by letting the outside world poison in.

Like black markets and the what not?

Yeah. North Koreans are very aware of that; which is why they ring fence it. The recent engagement is very useful and allows the South Koreans to know a lot more about the North Koreans and have multiple channels. It means that when something happens they can say to whoever is in charge “look we’ll ship our tourists up to you, we’ll double the size of our Kaesong operations and that way you get more dollars.” If there are no connections and with all you’re relying on is a single phone line, you have no leverage, no intelligence, nothing.

What grade would you give the sunshine policy overall? A failing grade or…?

No, I would give it an A grade. The people who feel it has failed are either the conservatives who think you’re giving something to the regime, or people who expect too much. This latter group see the proper way to engage as an exercise in building trust and converting people to your viewpoint. The thing is that you’re never going to build trust with a Stalinist dictatorship. So, given that pragmatic engagement is in our interest, not really in theirs, I would give it an A grade. It’s gone further than I would have expected. I wouldn’t have expected Kaesong. I thought we were going to have a bit of Hyundai, a bit of Samsung, a bit of Daewoo, a bit of LG in different parts of the country doing different things but we’ve actually got far more than that. Kumgangsan hasn’t been very good from a business point of view but it has exposed people to North Korea and taken the fear out of the South of the northern bogey. As for this idea of giving them something and the money going to the military or whatever, I say, “So what?”

So now that the “sunshine policy” has been terminated by Lee Myung-bak’s government, how do you view his approach to North Korea?

The same. I think it’s just more pragmatism. There’s been a shift from lukewarm earnestness to pragmatism but both are engagers. I think the real thing is to engage them and expect nothing. What you had before with South Korean Presidents, the last two, was a yearning for some role to play in unification. They yearned for acceptance from North Korea. Lee Myung-bak is more like “I’ve got a lot of things on my mind and I’m not really bothered about North Korea, if you’ve got something to say I’ll meet you.” So he’s still an engager but that sort of yearning for results went out of it. I think that’s really sensible.

North Korea being removed from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, will this mean more of the same again or will this actually change anything?

No, I think it’s reasonable that that happened. Frankly, the Americans should have done that quicker. They kind of reneged on the deal which is why the North Koreans got stroppy and walked out of the talks again. The Americans don’t really follow through on what the North Koreans think they promise to do in these talks. The reasons that North Korea was on the list is technical. North Korea is not the Taliban. They’re not really sponsoring terrorism. The terrorism they are guilty of happened in the context of warfare against South Korea with which they are still technically at war, and the South don’t consider them “terrorists” any more. So, you don’t like to excuse such things but there was a context and I think they have them given up.

Obama. Is it smoother sailing now with Obama, a Democrat going in?

I think McCain would have been a bit more no-nonsense. I imagine Obama’s instincts are more to look for opportunities. Clinton and Bush both went through the same pattern with North Korea. At the beginning of their terms, North Koreans wanted to talk to them and they refused. So North Korea stoked up its nuclear program and finally forced the US into talks. By the end of Clinton’s term, he was regretting that he hadn’t paid more attention to North Korea. Bush’s saw North Korea as evil and had a foreign policy of anything-but-Clinton, but he ended up talking and signing a deal. So the last two administrations have gone through the same pattern and I can’t see another going through the same learning curve. I imagine Obama will continue the Bush policy. I’m not sure how important North Korea will be to him. If he feels like some more engagement, I would give the same advice to him: engage but don’t expect anything more than irritation, frustration, talks and talks about having talks. That’s all you’re going to get with North Korea but it will keep them busy until they change.

When will North Korea change? Or, how will they change?

I don’t know. I’ve been predicting for years some unexpected event that will change things. But so far it’s never happened. I think my poor fortune-telling is because I can’t believe that such human folly can continue. But it does. We’re brought up on a diet of American movies where the bad guys are always brought to justice in the end. You can’t believe that regimes can get away with evil and sort of evolve into something more acceptable, as China has, and not get punished. But that’s probably what will happen.

But there is potential for bloodshed. North Korea is a very angry society. It appears to be well under control from our perspective on the outside. But closer up, you see it. A lot of fights break out in North Korea. The first day I was there, I went into a bar near the hotel. One man fell backwards off his bar stool and another was thrown out by the waitress. I was surprised how stroppy it was. If the circumstances changed a little, people may not all march with pick axes to the presidential palace but they might go for local party bosses. The key condition would be a rift in the power machinery, or a loss of will by the security forces, that leads North Koreans to feel they’re safe to express themselves.

What may happen if the regime does indeed collapse?

In Germany, the communist regime fell and the people who took power asked to unify with the West. Those who asked had no stake in what had been built up. The Koreans however are extremely proud. They’re much more political in nature than Western people are. If somebody, even if he were new, found himself at the top of a pile in the post-Kim Jong-il regime, the last thing he’d do is turn around and ask South Korea if his country can be its poor cousin. As if the North would ask, “Can you absorb us and abuse us for the next two generations please?” He’s going to think, “I’m king of this pile, why make it a small pile?” That‘s why I imagine a situation that allows the North Koreans to remain North Korean. Then there’s just the gradual evolvement into one state over time. Who knows? On the other hand, it could all be over this time next week.

Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country

Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country, by Mike Kim is a firsthand account of the author’s experiences with North Korean refugees on the Chinese border. His time in China was spent helping North Korean refugees through the non-governmental organization Crossing Borders. The organization runs shelters and orphanages, while also providing humanitarian assistance within North Korea. Although it is clear through his prose that Mike is not a professional writer, the information he provides shows us a window into the Hermit Kingdom that is opened for very few people. Much of the story is told by recounting the relationships he has built with North Korean refugees, missionaries, Chinese- Korean aid workers and even interviews with North Korean soldiers. Through his interviews and experiences, Mike is able to depict the abhorrent living conditions that are the daily lives of North Koreans and why it is that so many people are trying to leave even though they may face death as a penalty. The stories from the Asian Underground Railroad are depressing, yet you feel compelled to read on as they tell of sex trafficking, child abandonment and death. Information regarding the greater political picture is also abundant in the book. For anyone looking to learn more on North Korea, the end notes refer to such writers as Michael Breen author of The Koreans (1999) and Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader (2004) and Kang Chol-hwan, who wrote The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag. The author is a religious person whose faith is made abundantly clear throughout the book’s entirety. For non-religious readers this may seem as a bit of a drawback but all in all it’s not too preachy. The book is worth a read for its educational value alone and the few negative aspects are far outweighed by the importance of the stories that are told.


Liquor in the Front, Poker in the Rear

Adam Walsh

Every Saturday afternoon at around 0200pm, people come to the Rocky Mountain Tavern in Itaewon to try their luck at Texas Hold’em poker. A typical afternoon consists of approximately 15 players who are a healthy mix of Western and Korean. Buy –in for the weekly game costs 20 000 won, which in addition to playing chips, also gets you two 6000 won voucher stamps that can be redeemed at the bar for food or drink. Re-buy costs man won but also comes with another 6000 won stamp. First prize is a one hundred dollar gift certificate at RMT, while 2nd and third place prizes depend on how many people are playing.

It was with this information that I ventured to RMT last Saturday. Not being a big Texas Hold’em player, I decided beforehand to bone up on my poker playing skills. After watching Casino Royale on cable, I realized that James Bond’s math is far better than mine will ever be and that there’s no way my girlfriend would accompany me to the game in a conservative-impaired cocktail dress to distract my competitors. Solace, however, was taken in the fact that no one would be trying to kill me during the break. If only I had paid more attention that time I watched Rounders. Unfortunately, images of John Malkovitch and Oreo cookies were all I could come up with.

The group invited me in and was fine with giving me some quotes during the break. The majority of the players have been regulars at the table since at least last summer. When I explained that I hadn’t played in a few years, I was told that it was a “friendly game” and that things never got overly serious. Although, that being said, I was sure I heard a chuckle or two at the knowledge that I was inexperienced. I figured for sure that I was going to get skinned and end up observing from the sidelines. That is until a Korean guy came in and started complaining about how he was dumped by his girlfriend the day prior. He was ADD excitable and bet real aggressively. Before too long his chips were drained and I felt better about my lot. Relieved at the fact that I wasn’t the first to go, I got into a playing rhythm as I used my stamps on Alley Cat Pale Ales. The re-buy system was a little odd I thought, as it gives more chips for the same amount each time you buy in. “It keeps the mood light” I was told, “Plus, you get more stamps.” Also, you can only re-buy three times and not after the break. That being said, if you are going to compete in the second half, the blinds get raised considerably and you should ensure that your stockpile of chips is commensurate with your opponents.

All in all it’s a great group to play with and even when I came third, the group was very forgiving of my luck. As for the quotes, even in a friendly match, when you start to win, the least of the passive aggressive comments still tend to be about your mom. The poker set I received will be used to practice so that I can return to RMT and win the gift certificate. I find that free beer always tastes better for some reason or other.

1 comment:

Young-Shim said...

I couldn't find a kind of 'guest book.'.

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