10 December 2008

Seoul: Starting to wind down

I can't believe that three months of South Korea (except for a week back in Los Angeles, and half a week in Hong Kong) have flown by, and will end soon. I had thought I would be slowing down, but that was not to be; it looks like I'll be busy wandering around to the very end.

Today's initial agenda was to visit the Japanese embassy and join a special International Human Rights Day protest by the former Comfort Women and their supporters. Again, the most logical routing was to Anguk Station on Line 3. With each ride on the line, I am hating it even more; not only is its routing very crooked and its rolling stock outright junk (when the Vietnamese take the trains next year, they'll need to do some serious refurbishment before putting them in service), but its stations have too-tiny platforms for their traffic level. At least Line 3 uses more island platforms, which allow easier direction reversals, than other lines, and its trains tend to carry less propaganda than other Seoul Metro lines.

I did find the embassy, a diminutive building identifiable only by the Japanese flag overhead, without much trouble. But there was very heavy police presence, and it was pretty much impossible to get past the police lines. The police line, using several armed buses, was so thick that I couldn't even see the demonstration itself. I had to walk away.

Seen at a major fire station near the Japanese embassy: a Kia Pride (Rio in the US) with hybrid powertrain, as indicated by decals and badges. Both the Pride and its corporate twin Hyundai Verna (Accent in the US) can be ordered as gasoline-electric hybrids for fleet use. Can Hyundai-Kia send a few of these stateside as well, so that I can consider buying one and saving a bundle on gasoline?

The fire station, as it turns out, is right across the alley from the rear fence of the US embassy.

Until last month, this place had the longest line in the world for obtaining a US visa. But today, the line is empty, thanks to South Koreans now being able to enter the US visa-free. While short-term tourist and business trips up to 90 days can now be done visa-free, all other US entries, including study, investment, work, or immigration, still require a visa. Those who had been denied US visas in the past also need to get a visa first, as they will not be pre-cleared by the Homeland Security website. Nevertheless, this does open up the US to South Koreans who couldn't previously travel there; the most notable such demographic is single women tourists, as the US visa policy has been to treat every single female casual visitor as a potential sex worker looking for illegal US employment, and therefore deny visas. I do hope that more of these newly eligible travelers can visit the US, and take the initiative in US-South Korean relations away from the Moonies, the neocons, and their puppets.

The bilingual signs above advise that applicants for immigration visas need not stand in line, but go straight to a dedicated window for them. Also, all visa applicants are advised to not submit any fradulent documents; submitting fradulent documents may ban the applicant from the US for life, and even adversely effect South Korea's status in the US Visa Waiver program. In fact, a number of Latin American nations, including Argentina and Uruguay, have had their US Visa Waiver participation status revoked, when too many of their nationals were staying in the US illegally.

There are a number of legal services within a block of the US embassy that assist US-bound travelers. Some notarize and translate documents, while others offer legal consultation and assistance in obtaining any necessary US visas, including study, business, and immigration, especially to those who had previously been denied US visas.

I am now heading for my next destination, the Hongdae/Sinchon district, to look for a Greek lunch. From the US embassy, it's five stops - two stops on Line 5, three more on Line 2.

I am on a Line 2 train. This ad was taken out by Amnesty International, and urges South Koreans to "keep a promise that hasn't been kept for the past sixty years." Of course, it's a reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose Korean translation is in the background. Amnesty International has certainly done a lot of good in South Korea, for conscientious objectors of military service, for political prisoners in the past, and for the LGBT community.

But I am reminded that things are looking very grim again. After all, I am on a Seoul Metro train, featuring tons of propaganda from the colonial government. I continue to be encouraged to turn in any left-winger in sight for a 30 million won reward. An ad behind me, from the Republicans, has a whole bunch of empty promises targeted to college students and the middle class, including "removal of regulations" to create 200,000 new jobs; unfortunately, the Republicans will only remove necessary regulations, and keep truly harmful regulations intact (or make them even worse).

I took a look at a newsstand on a subway platform when I had some time. It looks like Dong-A Ilbo, a very pro-independence and anti-Japanese newspaper during the Japanese rule, is just as much of a right-wing mouthpiece today as Chosun Ilbo; maybe Dong-A opposed the Japanese, not because they were foreigners, but because colonial rule by the US Republicans or some other similar power would've been vastly more preferable. This is the same mentality shown by South Korea's Christian establishment. Much saner reads are the venerable Gyeonghyang Shinmun, which had once been shut down for opposing the Syngman Rhee dictatorship, and which I now see as a mildly left-wing paper, as well as the Hankyoreh, a more strongly worded center-left paper; if I were to be in Seoul long-term and actually start reading newspapers, I'd make these two papers my primary sources. I'll also read the prominent center-right papers, especially the familiar Hankook Ilbo and its English edition The Korea Times, quite a bit too, but I'll certainly do everything to avoid the lies and propaganda of Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo. Sure enough, in the subway cars, elderly passengers in reserved seats always read Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo, while younger passengers in non-reserved seats are more likely to read a variety of center-right and left-wing papers.

The Greek place was closed for today, and its menu seemed less than authentic anyway. However, I did find a decent Mexican place nearby, and ordered a 8,000-won burrito which turned out to be excellent. Yes, Mexican food is very rare and quite expensive in South Korea, but I'll take what I can get.

Now, I am walking away from the Mexican place. Above is a shot of the Volkswagen Phaeton, an extremely nice but overpriced luxury car that had to be withdrawn from the US due to very slow sales, but quite popular in South Korea.

I was able to read a Korean edition of US car magazine Motor Trend while waiting for my lunch, as well as a glance at a few automotive newspapers in the subway. Anything automotive now grabs me, due to my imminent purchase of a Hyundai, and due to some weird South Korean-market cars that I will not get to see after my US return. Some stuff I picked up today:
  • The Hyundai Genesis V8 (the US-market prototype that Motor Trend tested here in South Korea) has a few flaws - its trunk lining is incomplete, for example. The engine also doesn't perform as well as numbers suggest, and the car itself is more Lexus conservative than BMW sporty. But it still is one heck of a car at a great price. My Genesis will be the V6 model, which is actually a better car, based on what I've gathered.
  • The Hyundai Sonata and the Honda Accord, both 4-cylinder models, were pitted against each other twice: first at a Hyundai event in South Korea, and second at a comparison at Southern California's Santa Anita Park. As my current daily driver is an Accord, and as I did some serious driving in a Sonata for my road trip last month, both cars are of interest to me. The South Korean reviewers liked the Sonata's design better but preferred the Accord for its performance, while the US reviewers, while praising the Accord's engine, still chose the Sonata. The Accord is personally my favorite, but if Honda won't bring a high-efficiency hybrid version to the market anytime soon (as Hyundai will), I'll definitely consider defecting to the Sonata camp, especially if my Genesis turns out to be even half as great as it's supposed to be.
  • A BMW is much harder to justify than before. That's music to my ears. The reason is that the interior ergonomics, which has lots of electronic gizmos that must be controlled through the iDrive knob, is horrible. Sure, BMWs still perform well, but competitors are getting close enough for lower prices.
  • South Korean petroleum market consists of just four players: GS Caltex, Hyundai Oilbank, SK, and S-Oil. (SK's Ulsan refinery is the largest in the world - and neighbors the world's largest car assembly plant and the world's largest shipbuilding dock as well, both owned by Hyundai.) Gasoline taxes have gone up quite a lot recently to pay for highway improvements, leaving South Korean motorists fuming, but tax cuts won't reach consumers due to the collusion of these four refiners. Allowing foreign oil companies in could solve the problem, but be careful what you wish for, as the multinationals like Exxon and Chevron are among the most evil bastards in any industry anywhere in the world.
  • The Japanese are making a full assault on the South Korean market. Toyota has been selling Lexus luxury cars for a while, while Honda has been selling mainstream vehicles. In the past month or two, Nissan and Mitsubishi have also arrived (though Nissan has been selling Infinitis for a few years). Nissans are quite competitive and selling decently, and the boxy Cube is already starting to pop up quite a bit. Mitsubishis are doing very poorly, however, even though South Koreans know Mitsubishi very well due to most early Hyundais using Mitsubishi technologies.
  • GM Daewoo is doing very badly. Its Winstorm SUV is actually pretty good, but the new Winstorm Max, which is a different model and is identical to the US-market Saturn Vue, is a flop due to fewer contents and higher price tag. The Winstorm Max is really intended for European export as an Opel. Meanwhile, Daewoo's last good luxury car was the Opel-designed Prince from over a decade ago, which was replaced by the Ssangyong Chairman (another good car, thanks to Mercedes mechanicals) when Daewoo acquired Ssangyong. But Daewoo then went bankrupt, Ssangyong was divested, and Daewoo itself became part of GM; Daewoo's first luxury car under GM, the Statesman, sold so poorly that I'm lucky to spot even one every other week, and its brand-new replacement, the Veritas, is doing even worse. Over in the US, Suzuki used to be the primary seller of GM Daewoo products in the past five years or so, but it appears that they are now discontinued, leaving the Chevy Aveo (formerly Daewoo Kalos, and now redesigned as Daewoo Gentra) as GM Daewoo's only US offering (and certainly its only product good enough for the US market).
Walking in front of Lesbos again. This place was/is certainly a trendsetter, as South Korea's first lesbian bar. The lesbian culture will continue to evolve and blossom, even as 2MB starts to crack down on the lesbians.

Hongdae is also home to Manyeo ("witch"), another venerable lesbian bar, though I had no luck finding it today either. There are a number of other women-only bars in this area, and I am very well convinced at least some of them are lesbian-oriented, if not outright lesbian.

Lesbian Power, baby!

A women-only bar that I had previously sighted here was Lady First, but now it's under a different name, "Sexy Han Bar," as seen above.

Not a women-only space, but of interest anyway. This is a hip-hop nightclub, named Harlem. Those "Merry Christmas - Happy New Year" signs now let me know that I am not too far away from 2009. I hope it will be a better year - given that Barack Obama takes the Presidency in the US on January 20th, and that will also reduce 2MB to a slave without his master.

Across from Harlem, I can find an American Apparel store. I certainly could use some more of their legwear products, especially leg warmers. Here in South Korea, American Apparel, which is imported from Los Angeles's Garment District, is pricey compared to locally manufactured legwear, however. At least American Apparel is NOT sweatshop!

Now that I'm full, I see a nice Greek restaurant, Greek Joy, that has a better menu. Too late.

There is a nice lunch special at 6,500 won as indicated on the board. Very tempting.

I love eating Greek food, partly because it's unlike other cuisines I eat, and partly out of a nod to the ancestral land of my idol Jennifer Aniston. After months of staring at images of the homewrecker bitch Angelina Jolie, even in the subway, I need to make up for it. Sure, Jennifer Aniston is herself no fan of Greek food, but I don't care - I love Greek culture anyway, and look forward to a visit to Greece in the near future.

The Queen Bar. I wonder if this could be yet another women-only space...

There are so many women-only bars in Hongdae, quite a few of them lesbian, that every sight of anything resembling a women's bar makes me feel good. The sight of local fashionistas, a number of them dressed in wool Ally McLesbian miniskirt suits, also are welcome.

Girls on Top. Love the name. I do hope it's a lesbian hangout, but even if it isn't, just the name itself is more than adequate.

A look at the neighborhood map indicated that Hongdae is easily accessible not only from Line 2 at Hongik University Station, but also from Line 6 at Sangsu Station. In fact, Sangsu is closer to the Hongik University campus itself.

I am now approaching Sangsu Station so that I can finish off for the day. I love the name of this Japanese ramen joint, written in large Japanese letters with small Korean caption. "Onehsan Ra-men" - great name! It means "Older Sister Ramen."

My hatred of 2MB and his cronies is more intense than ever. I'll have to face their base - the Korean-American community - when I get home, and that's not pretty either. Nevertheless, South Korea seems determined to please and inspire me to the last moment, and I appreciate it. I'll make sure to carry these inspirations well into the future once I am back stateside, and of course, buying my new car will be a huge step in the right direction.